Mention the word ‘veteran’ and what do you think of? Chances are you think of a man that has seen combat in some capacity. Guadalcanal, Normandy, Bastogne, The Frozen Chosin, Pork Chop Hill, Khe Sanh, Hill 867, Ia Drang, Grenada, Panama, Afghanistan, Iraq…all of these places evoke a mental image of men in combat. Hostile fire, incoming, ambushes, patrols; these are the things that veterans did. And it’s right to think so. Let’s face it; we need men to go into the dark, dirty, dangerous places and do dark, dirty, dangerous things to insure the safety of our nation. We should celebrate our warriors because they are the ones that pay for bad politics. However, there are other people, people who are every bit as dedicated, professional, and willing to face danger, even if they never enter a combat zone. You won’t see movies made about them. There will never be an epic entitled “Supplying Private Ryan” or an action movie about “Blackhawk Down for Maintenance” But those men and women that work long, tedious, hours to keep the birds flying, the mail flowing, and the paperwork filed deserve our thanks too. And, if the shit really, in truly, catastrophically hits the fan, they will be required to pick up a rifle and fight the battle that needs fighting.
It’s happened before.
When the Japanese invaded the Philippines in 1941, they found an American and Philippine Army that fought ferociously. Unfortunately, the American and Philippine armies were outnumbered and outgunned. The Japanese advanced, the Allies pulled back in a fighting retreat. Replacement parts, food, ammunition, fuel, and reinforcements were in short supply. The American Air Corps (the organization that would eventually evolve into the US Air Force) was eventually swept from the skies by Japanese aircraft that were superior in numbers and capabilities.
When pilots found that they had no more aircraft capable of flying, they picked up a rifle and took their place on the line. When sailors were forced to abandon their duties at the ammo dumps, flight lines, and various ships, they picked up a rifle and joined the Marines on the line. When cooks, personnel clerks, supply sergeants, mechanics, and whatever other support personnel found themselves called to man the line, they went. They fought, and they died alongside their brethren in the Infantry.
When Bataan fell, the Japanese didn’t segregate them by Military Occupational Specialty (“You’re a pilot? Oh, then you can go to the POW camp with air conditioning!”), they brutalized, bayoneted, and beat sailors, soldiers, marines, and air corps with equal brutality.
Moreover, none of them said, “Man the line? I’m a sailor! I don’t man lines!” They did what they were called to do. They had no idea that the sacrifice they made, the battles they fought, was the turning point for the Japanese. Because they held out so doggedly, they threw the entire timetable for the Japanese off schedule. They also provided America the time necessary to arm and equip the military that would eventually fight its way back to the Philippines and on to victory.
Such were the men who served. And such ARE the men and women who serve today. The names change, the uniforms change, the equipment changes, but the people who serve remain constant. They believe in something larger than themselves. To them, the words “Duty, Honor, Country” are more than a pithy slogan; they are what lie at the very core of their character.
Who are the veterans? You can’t tell by looking at them, the experiences they have had, the people they saw die, the friends they made. And lost. You wouldn’t know that the old man you pass on the way to the store drove a truck almost all the way across Europe rain or shine, day or night, to and from the front lines. And how could you tell that the guy on the Harley limps because he caught a bullet in Bosnia while on duty for the UN?
That skinny kid at McDonald’s? The one with the brushcut and the funny eagle tattoo? He jumped out of airplanes in the middle of the night, landed in the dark on what was hopefully open ground, and then carried 60 pounds of equipment on his back during a forced march that would have had Lance Armstrong puking his guts out. If he was lucky, he got to rest for an hour before moving on to a place where shots were fired in anger. Both from and at him.
And that middle-aged guy with the Eagle, Globe, and Anchor? He may be a little hard of hearing since that mortar shell landed a little too close while he was “peacekeeping” in Beirut.
You know the guy that laughs when you complain about it being too cold? It’s because he knows what real cold is like; real cold is trying to load a cargo plane and launch it before the blizzard sets in (something that happens a lot in Alaska, or Greenland, or South Dakota)
That woman that seems a little rough around the edges? She cusses a little too much and seems a little impatient with people? You tend to get like that when you’re a female MP doing a “man’s job” in some Third World shithole where everyone, including many that are supposed to be on your side, hate you.
The guy that never seems to know when to quit working? He got that way while he was palletizing beans and bullets headed for the guys on the sharp end, knowing that if he didn’t do his job, one of them may get killed because of it.
That pleasant old man that is quick to joke, easy to talk to, and seems not to have a care in the world? After leading young men through 2 tours in Vietnam making life and death decisions from minute to minute, it’s tough to get upset when the boss wants you to work a little overtime.
That doddering old wreck at the ballgame that stands for the National Anthem with a tear in his eye? Such moments remind him of the friends he lost in the Pacific.
Pretty much any one of them did what they did without hesitation. No doubt, on 9/11/2001, everyone who ever served would have gladly re-enlisted to take the fight to the enemy. America calls, we answer. It’s what we do.