Dad and Veterans Day

In 1942, my father quit high school and joined the Army Air Corps, in spite of having been accepted to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the fine engineering school in Troy, New York. It was a story he repeated many times with regret … I thought I was a big shot, was the only explanation he ever gave.  I know enough about Dad’s father, Arthur, to think that my Dad just needed to get away and that the Army was the quickest out. In a time when going off to war was portrayed as heroic, it probably didn’t seem like a terrible option compared to dealing with his father. My parents were married while he was on leave, then moved to Caspar, Wyoming while he went through basic training. I was apparently conceived there. When Dad was shipped to Europe to serve a maintenance supervisor for Liberator bombers, my mother moved back into her Mom’s house, where I was born. My father didn’t talk much about his wartime experiences … I only have snippets of stories in my recall: Dad sea sick on a troop carrier in high seas; cockroaches as big as turtles on the base in Italy; bombers coming back from a mission with the skin shot off most of the fuselage.

Several years ago, when Dad was in assisted living, his money was running out. We discovered a little-known Veteran’s benefit called Aid and Attendance that gave him a substantial benefit toward his rent … he balked at the idea at first, thinking it was welfare, but when we told him it was a benefit for military service, he cried. My Dad’s not a crier … it says something powerful about the impact of his military experience on his psyche. Before my sister went to visit him this weekend, she typed up a copy of his military record (below) and gave it to some of the staff and my Dad’s friends at the home. My sister told Dad that the staff was pretty impressed with his record. I am, too, he said, I just can’t remember most of it. Remember or not, it was a nice tribute to his service.

Things have changed since my father’s service. Movies like Saving Private Ryan and Platoon have replaced the John Wayne images of gung-ho heroes charging into battle with more realistic scenes of ordinary young men struggling to do their duty amid the horrors of war. Fighting in Iran and Afghanistan seems to many less connected to the events of nine-eleven than fighting against the Axis after Pearl Harbor. We’ve sent our soldiers to places like Korea or Vietnam and wondered what they were dying for. Are they really dying to keep us free? Over the years, I’ve been a Dove … during Vietnam… and a Hawk … after nine-eleven … but most of the time I fall somewhere in between. I believe we need to know that war is horrible not heroic while remembering that there is genuine evil in the world. This country isn’t perfect but it’s far better than any alternative and if we want to keep it that way, we will sometimes send our youth into war. Some will be heroes but most will just do their duty and hope to stay alive. Some will die to keep us free and some will die in what turns out to be a mistake. But collectively, our soldiers preserve this wonderful country of ours. Please take the time today to honor those who have served and remember to say thanks to a veteran. If possible, make a contribution to an organization like the USO or the Wounded Warrior Project in support of our soldiers still in the field.

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