Saturday, November 12, 2011

I Was One Too But Don't Thank Me

When I see the tributes and thank you messages to vets around Veteran’s Day each year, I usually embrace the message and in some way add to the salutes. I want to praise “them” for their service. Then in the middle of it all, I remember that I am a military veteran too. I do not usually include myself in the praise.

I have served my country in many positive ways over the years but my military service is not one of them. I hated the military at the time and most of what I thought they stood for then. I enlisted in the Army but only because I thought I lost my college deferment because of bad grades and I mistakenly believed I would have more choice if I joined rather than being drafted. The draft ended soon after and I would never have had to go. Fate works in mysterious ways, doesn’t it?

My three-year enlistment lasted only one year. The details are my business and I’ve only shared them with a few friends. Let me just say that it was perfectly legal and I was honorably discharged with access to full VA benefits prorated for the amount of time I served.

I will say that I did not and do not believe in killing. Something I understand now that I did not get more than three decades ago is that sometimes there is no other way. Our brave military men and women sometimes have to kill to keep us free. I don’t like it but I understand it, accept it and benefit from it. They put themselves on the line for the rest of us and deserve our respect for that. I and others serve our country in different ways that are just as valuable. Another thing that has changed inside me over the years: while I still do not believe in killing, I will gladly beat the shit out of someone who harms me or someone close and I won’t regret it a bit. I just hope I’m never in that position. I have the right to hold this complicated set of beliefs, thanks in part to veterans; try not to judge my for what I believe.

Another military veteran with complex reasons for his service was my Dad. He joined the Navy at the very end of World War II for reasons similar to mine. He did serve his full two-year enlistment. He almost lost his life but not because of lingering post-war gun fire; his ship almost went down in a typhoon in the Pacific. Other ships did sink in that same storm. Fate again?

I wonder what it means that my Dad died on Veteran’s Day ten years ago. There are plenty of reasons for me to remember him and the day he died, but the public spotlight on that day each year makes it even harder to forget. It is such a public day yet he died very privately in a nursing home room with only his wife and his two children at his bedside. That month we were still in the process of arguing with the VA over benefits he earned that would have helped pay for his medical care. How ironic that the VA paid for a year of my education and helped me buy a house yet they threw up obstacle after obstacle to avoid paying for some of his needs.

Everything in life presents a learning opportunity, in my opinion. I learned a few things during my unremarkable Army year: the value of physical fitness, the buzz of marijuana, the positive side of discipline, how to correctly peel a potato, how to befriend the only black man I had had deep conversations with up to that point in my life, how to scale a solid 7-foot wall, how to clean a gun, how to clean a gunshot wound, how to clean a latrine, how to defend myself with words, how to stand up for something I believed even though I was the only person in a room full of 40 men who all thought I was some kind of unpatriotic freak for having those beliefs.

And since that time more than three decades ago I have also learned to accept and respect all men and women in the military for what they do and who they are, for how their actions help make us free and for the bravery some of them show in the face of situations that even the best training cannot fully prepare them for.

If you are a veteran, I thank you for your service, whether you spent your whole time stateside as a cook, driver, mechanic, doctor or band member, or you ran headlong into certain death in a jungle or a desert and returned missing limbs and parts of your soul. But don’t thank me; all I did was sweep floors, move furniture and type sympathy letters to families of those who didn’t make it. I learned to respect and support you and what you do over the years, but you taught me that. You can thank yourself for the lesson.

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