Veterans Day, 2017

Posted on December 4, 2017


This column is dedicated to all who have served in the military, or, for that matter, all who are now serving and will one day become veterans. It is a time to remember not those who have died in service — celebrated on Memorial Day — but recognize those still living.

In my family, at least through my generation, it was almost a given that the men would serve. I don’t remember any branch of service being a favorite. I picked the Navy simply because it was the first ROTC building I came upon at Duke one fall day in 1960 when I went shopping for ROTCs.

I had two uncles in World War I, and my father joined the Army, but the war ended before he was sent “over there” to join his brothers-in-arms. My Uncle Silas drove an ambulance and a truck for a hospital unit just outside of Paris while my other uncle, Uncle Van, was in the Navy tending lighthouses along the east coast. Well, someone had to do it!

All of you veterans will probably remember your service as not only having done your part for your country, but also perhaps with a good sense of humor.

I was never in combat, but have read enough to know that it can be a terrifying experience and devastating, sometimes long afterward as post-traumatic stress disorder takes its toll. Whatever combat did to you — it was called different things, such as shell shock, by different generations — it’s a reminder that some have given more than their time to their country, which includes not only the psychological damage, but also the mutilating and dismembering wounds as well.

My older brother — Army engineers via ROTC at Georgia Tech, 1952 — had counseled me at the ripe old age of 17.

“I know you know it all, but when you go in go as an officer, not an enlisted man,” he said. “It’s just better all around.” He was in fact stating a commonly held principle at work in our country at that time, especially among the elites. In 1956, for example, a majority of the graduating classes of Stanford, Harvard and Princeton joined the military, and most were not drafted. Leadership grew out of service.

Today, fewer than 1 percent of Ivy League graduates elect to serve, and self-interest appears to trump service to one’s country. And fewer than 1 percent of congressmen and senators have a child in uniform. This obviously tends to separate the war-makers (Congress and president) from those who would do the fighting and dying. It’s something like having a mercenary military with few ties of family and kinship between those fighting and the vast majority of those safely at home, with some obvious exceptions over the past several years as the home front has also become a battleground of sorts.

Conscription, or the draft, ended in 1973 and hasn’t been a part of our culture now since the Vietnam War. Today we have an all-volunteer Army, and, of course, Navy, etc. Veterans are a small and diminishing percentage of our population. Right now, only about 7 percent of the population are veterans, and more than half of those are over 60.

I always viewed my own service as a time of commitment and even altruism, putting myself on the same plane with my other shipmates — I did my two years as gun boss (weapons officer) on the USS Donner (LSD 20) — from all over the country, from places I only knew about from reading, like Massachusetts, Florida, or Oregon.

We learned to blend and work well together. We learned we were part of a whole, not just little atoms running through time and space looking after our self-interest and happiness. I learned to respect, and to handle respect given to me that demanded a strong dose of personal responsibility and sense of place.

We weren’t perfect. In fact, I read two great novels from the Second World War, “Mister Roberts” and “Don’t Go Near the Water,” when I flew across the Atlantic to meet my ship then in the Mediterranean. Sometimes I think I lived the life of those wonderful characters in American fiction. I did in part, but, more important, I shared in an experience that makes American life so wonderful and fulfilling, sometimes painful and sometimes exhilarating.

It rises from an experience in the military and I thank all Americans, veterans and non-veterans, who consider service and sacrifice to country as our contribution to America.

Published as “Service to our country deserves our respect” in Sunday, Nov. 12, 2017 in The Tuscaloosa News.