A note to my brothers-in-arms…
Note: This started as a simple email to friends and fellow veterans. Owing to the response I received, I decided to spruce it up a little and include it here. —Jim
To my fellow veterans:
Perhaps it’s because of the times we live in, with troops in harm’s way. Or it might be the still-fresh memory of the massacre at Ft. Hood. Or it could be owing to recent communications with former brothers- (and sisters-) in-arms. Whatever the source, I’m feeling particularly sentimental about Veterans Day—our day—this time around. It always happens, but…for some reason, it’s a stronger feeling today.
Some of you I served with. Some, I didn’t. No matter. I’ve always felt that—regardless of our respective histories—we share something very special. I suspect many of you feel the same.
Some time ago, I was seated at a blackjack table in Tunica, MS. I’d been engaged in sporadic conversation with the young man seated alongside me, and learned that he’d recently returned from his second tour in Iraq. I asked the usual questions (we all know them—right?) : Where are you from? What’s your MOS? How long’ve you been in?
This, of course, revealed to him (we all recognize the signs and subtle signals) that I’d spent time in the military, as well—and in fact we had Army service in common (like I said: We all recognize the telltale signs of a brother-in-arms).
He then surprised me by extending his hand and saying: “Thanks for your service.”
This simple gesture has become common in recent years—and I kinda like it. However, no one had ever said it to me before; frankly, it caught me a little off-guard. Yes, I’d served. My military career was, however, decidedly unremarkable. No hero. Just did my job—like most of us. To be honest, I felt a tinge of humility hearing a “Thank-you” from someone so recently returned from the jaws of Hell.
Almost sheepishly, I grasped the proffered hand and shook it firmly. “No,” I said. “Thank-you. My time was long ago and a helluva lot easier.”
And then he said it.
“You served,” he said evenly, still gripping my hand. “That’s all that matters.”
And the steady, certain look in his eyes confirmed that he’d meant what he’d said.
He was right.
We served—and that is all that matters. Many…most…didn’t. We did.
I’m reminded of a Marine Corps recruiting billboard from a few years ago showing a split-view of a young man’s face. One-half was the boyish look he’d borne before he enlisted; the other half was the steel-jawed look that Uncle Sam put on him. The caption was simple: “The change is forever.”
And it is. It changed us. All of us. And we’ll always be different for it. Regardless of which branch each of us served in or what we did.
How many times have you sat around swapping lies with other vets when you suddenly became aware of the rapt attention being paid by one of them, those who never took our oath?
We share a common bond—one that will never be broken. It’s a special fraternity. It’s something that they will never have, nor even completely understand.
I pity them.
They’ll never know what it feels like.
They don’t know our friendships spawned amid shared adversity, our camaraderie forged by experiences they can’t even imagine. They’ll never know those memories that we won’t—or can’t—speak of except amongst ourselves, our brothers. They don’t understand the particular annoyance we feel when the entertainment superstar of the moment butchers the national anthem at a football game, or why we feel compelled to throttle those in the stands who fail to remove their hats or place their hands over their hearts or at least shut the hell up while it’s being played. They puzzle over why we rail against a giveaway to someone who’s earned nothing, but we’ll give anything—anything—to one of our brothers in need. They’ll never know that bittersweet tug on our heart-strings whenever we hear the mournful strains of Taps being played.
They can’t imagine a wintertime patrol of the DMZ in Korea when you’ve given-up on the idea of ever actually being warm again, settling instead for merely being able to once again feel your toes. They can’t picture an exhausted airman trying desperately to avoid dripping sweat on sensitive avionics components while struggling in desert heat to repair an aircraft for a ground-support mission. They’ll never know the lonely vigil of a sailor standing watch at night, peering into the inky blackness of the North Atlantic. They can’t begin to know fear so deep that you’re no longer certain of having control of your breathing or your bladder as you suddenly realize that there are a lot of people trying to kill you. They can’t imagine your feverish attempts to apply a field dressing, or holding a wounded buddy as his life slips away. They’ll never be able to laugh, years later, as friends reminisce about an over-exuberant celebration in an exotic port after months at sea—that might’ve resulted in a night or two spent in the local jail. They don’t grasp the significance to us of George Orwell’s familiar observation about people being able to sleep soundly in their beds at night because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf—nor do they have any idea that we now and then silently remind ourselves with pride: I was one of those rough men.
Whether you did a two-year stint courtesy of your draft board…or had nothing better to do for a few years after surviving high school…or felt a call to duty…or made a twenty- or thirty-year career out of it…
You served. We served. And whether we like it or not, we retain feelings that get stirred-up from time to time.
We know what it feels like, and sometimes have to choke down some pretty strong emotions. They haven’t a clue as to what that’s all about
I recently attended a ceremony during which my nephew and some thirty other very impressive young newly-minted Army and Air Force officers received their commissions, and I proudly welcomed my nephew and his comrades into our ranks. (For those who think that the “old Army” had something over the new…I have news for you: They’re every bit as good as our memories tell us that we were—and better, in my opinion.) What really struck me during this ceremony, though, was an observation made by an Air Force three-star who delivered some very appropriate comments (a pretty impressive guy, he was—for a zoomie, anyway). He pointed out that the whole of all our service personnel — every branch included — comprises less than 1% of the population. That’s worth considering for a moment…that 1% protects the other 99%. A sobering thought. One might conclude that we are members of a very exclusive club, indeed.
Some might recall that I’ve been waging a years-long battle to try to get people—them—to grasp the difference between Veterans Day and Memorial Day. It sends me into a slow boil every Memorial Day when I see television and newspaper ads proclaiming: “Thanks to all our veterans!”
I appreciate the sentiment, but…that’s not our day; that day is set aside for those who didn’t return—and blurring the line between the two occasions cheapens their sacrifice.
I’ve probably aggravated a lot of people in attempting to correct that misconception.
This is our day. This is the one we earned when we raised our hands and swore our oaths—when we entered that special fraternity…when we underwent that change that we’ll all take to our graves…when we were bound to one another forever.
Thank-you all for your service. Enjoy your day; you earned it. Go grab the free chow at Applebee’s and Golden Corral and Chili’s, and be appreciative that some, at least, acknowledge your service and sacrifice. Muster-up a dash of humility if a kid comes up to you today and says “Thanks” because a parent or teacher instilled that sense of values. Choke back your tears when the bugler plays Taps during the ceremony at The Tomb (or let them flow; you earned that right, too). Call an old Army buddy (or Navy; you get the idea). Shake hands with fellow vets you know; they’re your brothers-in-arms—and it’s their day, too.
Having now gotten all maudlin, I’ll leave you with one final thought expressed by Rudyard Kipling:
“I’ve eaten your bread and salt,
I’ve drunk your water and wine.
The deaths ye died I watched beside,
and the lives ye led were mine.
Note: This is a re-posting of an entry from three years ago. I first posted it in my old blog; however, when I transferred everything to this site, some of the formatting was corrupted. In addition, I received several requests from friends asking that it be re-posted for Veterans Day last year. So, I spruced it up again and made a few changes. Apparently, a lot of people liked it; I received several requests to re-post it again this year. —Jim