Returning servicemen haven't always been called 'Heroes'
Friday, May 24, 2013 10:00 PM
Some time back, Montgomery County's former Veteran's Service Officer, Claude Johnson called and asked if I'd like to stop by Williamsburg Health Care Center to visit some of Montgomery County's oldest veterans. Claude knew I have a warm spot for the vets and not just because I happened to be one myself. Like the rest of America, I've been along for this evolutionary ride re-defining the American veteran's national stature. While hard to imagine in the post 9-11 era, for a long, long time our vets were not America's heroes in the same sense that they are now. I've reveled in this perceptional change because, like most of my aging contemporaries, I came from the other end of that pendulum swing.
Any who remember the Viet Nam era will recall that that military generation was never adequately recognized for what they gave, and most certainly not the 58,000+ who gave their all. In the late '60s and early '70s, our political climate had cultured a liberal, anti-war bias that some now say begat the earliest vestiges of the entitlement mentality that that has broadened in influence with each post "boomer" generation.
The Viet Nam war found minority, rural, and working class kids feeding the country's draft boards at a vastly disproportionate rate when compared to their wealthier, urban, and college educated contemporaries. With increasing frequency, the prevailing anti-war sentiment of the times began to find outlet on the soldiers themselves. The irony was thatthe backbone of the anti-war movement was the offspring of that "Greatest Generation" who had given so much creating America's military might to which the protestors owed everything. Think it didn't hurt? Well let's put it this way, if you're feeling lucky stop by the Legion sometime and casually drop the name Jane Fonda.
In 1968 shortly after the infamous riots during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, I got a personal taste of just how bad the anti-military sentiment had actually gotten. Flying on orders, I had disembarked at Chicago's O'Hare airport. I was in uniform and upon entering the main terminal inadvertently walked smack into the midst of a fairly good sized crowd of anti-war protestors. There was much chanting and shouting, and suddenly this disheveled young guy about my age runs up to me, gets right in my grill and starts screaming "Murderer! Murderer!" at the top of his lungs after which, and with some dramatic flourish, he spits on my ribbons while the crowd cheered on approvingly. Unaware that in my youthful development I'd yet to perfect my "other cheek" response, my attacker immediately found himself flat on his back . . . only now he's screaming: "You broke my nose! You broke my nose!" Meanwhile, the natives had become very restless and it was equally obvious that the numbers were not on my side.
Salvation arrived almost immediately. Two of Chicago's finest came running straight toward me, but under the circumstances I intuitively feared that things were actually going from bad to worse. Surprisingly, in the chaos of that moment the first arriving officer actually chose to inquire what had happened. I simply pointed at the rather large blemish on my tunic before gesturing at the irate kid still painfully clutching his bloody face. Without a word, the two cops stepped past me, grabbed the protestor by his hair and began dragging him off to the near-by restroom while at the same time encouraging me to go promptly about my business. Not a problem. Thinking back on it, I'd probably just been rescued by a couple of WWII vets who'd undoubtedly endured the recent brickbats and slurs of Grant Park.
I tell the story because mine was not a unique event. Soldiers of that era were routinely harassed. In fact, it got so bad that by 1970 whenever military personnel traveled within the United States they were routinely encouraged not to do so in uniform.
When Claude called to ask about me visiting the nursing home to talk with the old vets, I still actually had some trepidation. I knew what to expect. Nursing homes, even those that are well run and caring are not the most uplifting places. I think we all find it disturbing to see how bad it can ultimately get while believing that anything would be a better alternative. Nonetheless, in what has ultimately turned out to be one of the best choices of my life, I opted to go.
Over time, there have been a surprisingly large number of Montgomery County vets who've made these nursing home visits. Now, Joe Ellis is the Montgomery County Veteran's Service Officer and he's picked right up where Claude left off. In the meantime, every participant I've spoken to has had exactly the same reaction to the old vets that I've had. What a treat.
The drill is routine: the old fellas are brought to the meeting room at an appointed time. Almost all are wheel-chaired in frequently, but not always, kind of unaware of what's going on. Then the miraculous happens. We visitors just start in talking, usually re-telling some humorous old military antidote. Then, one-by-one, the entire group begins chiming in with their own version one upsmanship. But, it's so much fun to watch the old timers start coming to life. Often, I've seen a twinkle appear in old eyes that moments earlier appeared comatose. To hear the banter, you'd think we're all the same age just sitting on our barracks racks in some far-flung outpost.
I met a guy who'd actually served with General Claire Chennault's all volunteer Flying Tiger squadron in pre-war (that's the Big One sonny!") south China. Many of our local vets survived the Battle of the Bulge; crossed from N. Africa to Sicily following Patton; or fought on the beaches of those sordid jungle invasions in the Pacific theater.
Occasionally, our more recent generations' throw in their stories from the Korean War, Viet Nam, Desert Storm and even Afghanistan. What young or old seem to intuitively grasp is that we all belong to a private club. Each of us knows the secret handshake. Early in every vet's life, duty called to defend America and its values. And, each generation consistently answered that call with a common belief that democracy and freedom deserved their personal protection though hardly any would admit that at the time their aspirations were so grand. Unfortunately, the movies rarely get it right when it comes to portraying a soldier's motives. I've never actually met a veteran who thrived on acts of battle - it's just turned out that our GI's happened to be really good at them.
What I'm always reminded of at our nursing home gatherings is that Montgomery County vets are similar in their competitiveness and the tough language they use spice their tales. But, it was those very characteristics that made them well suited as soldiers because combat is inherently a competitive and tough business. But, it's not our veteran's toughness but their humor that has had their greatest impact on me. Soldiers quickly learn that you can't survive the mind-numbing lunacy of military bureaucracy; nor, the social challenge of living with so many from all walks of life who dress like you, live under the same roof on the same 24/7 timetable as you, and - share the same stall-less latrine. It's a time-honored way of life that requires a sense of humor to endure, and how quickly that humor resurfaces when a bunch of old vets find themselves amongst their kind.
Memorial Day is coming up. So remember that, paraphrasing George Orwell, you've always slept soundly in your bed because rough men stood ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do you harm. Find a Montgomery County vet and tell him thanks. Trust me - he or she has done you a solid.
Tom Utley continues to serve as a Montgomery County Councilman. He is a businessman as well as a veteran.