How to thank a vet on Veterans Day
That’s how we Americans stand behind our men and women in uniform these days.
We talk about how much we love them, but we are increasingly detached from the military, uninvolved in the wars they fight on our behalf. We would even scream our protest if required to pay for those adventures rather than billing our children. So much for commitment.
With Veterans Day a couple of days away, I’m reminded that Israel has the right idea. In that country, military service is compulsory for all over 18, three years for men, two for women.
Shared sacrifice has not only the virtue of equity, it imbues citizens with a durable sense of responsibility and duty to protect their country that you do not spontaneously sprout in between episodes of “American Idol” and “Dancing with the Stars.” Besides, nothing makes a young man or woman grow up fast quite like heaping responsibility on their shoulders in a lethal setting.
Let me reach way back to my own experience to make the point. In mid-October I drove to John Synowsky’s ranch south of Weatherford, Texas, where eight of us gathered from the Dragon platoon of the 334th Attack Helicopter Company, Cobra pilots in the Vietnam War.
As we relaxed around the campfire swapping decades-old tales we probably heard before, Larry Pucci was telling a story while my mind drifted back to a different episode that he probably would love to forget.
In 1970 President Nixon broke with his predecessor and ordered American forces to cross the Cambodian border to cut the enemy supply lines coming from North Vietnam down the Ho Chi Minh Trail — at long last!
Larry Pucci was just 19 years old, an Aircraft Commander in a 334th Cobra, the first helicopter designed as a weapons platform, a gunship. His copilot sitting in front of him was Wayne Hedeman the day they were on the tip of the spear of the Cambodian incursion; Wayne was an elder at 25 years old.
Larry and Wayne were caught in a helicopter trap, where a very tough enemy placed .51 caliber anti-aircraft guns at the three points of a triangle, and when you make a rocket run at one of them, one of the other two guns would have an easy broadside shot. One of those big .51 rounds was not even slowed down as it passed through Wayne’s neck, and 19-year-old Larry pulled the guts out of that Cobra flying as fast as it would go to the Tay Ninh hospital, but it was too far and Wayne was dead when he landed on the pad.
There was no time for grief because Larry’s wingman needed him and the battle was a big one, so he rounded up a replacement copilot while the ground crew patched the canopy holes and washed the blood out of the cockpit, rearmed and refueled, and Larry flew back to rejoin the battle, pushing the bad experience way down in his gut to hide in the secret box that combat troops use to conceal the bad stuff so they can do their job.
The bad stuff never really goes away, and when they open the lid once in a while decades later, those memories are still wrapped in feelings they had at the time, as fresh as yesterday. And we wonder why many vets have a hard time talking about it.
That was just one day for one guy long ago in Vietnam. Our troops today are doing the same modern-day version repeatedly in Iraq and Afghanistan, with four or five deployments to a war zone common and their families at home serving their own tense tour as they wait.
Every day for the last 10 years American troops have been doing things in combat far beyond our imagining, with heavy responsibility for subordinates’ lives, mixing extreme physical stress with operating highly technical multi-million-dollar equipment, while back home others their age have only a passing awareness of the war while they focus on their smartphone and wouldn’t dream of anything so drastic as working with their hands.
The disconnect between our armed forces and citizenry reminds me of the medieval privileged class hiring mercenary forces to do their dirty and bloody work, concerned about results but not casualties; they aren’t “our” people.
I know, I know, you do care!
Nonetheless, It is on our behalf that our troops are sent again and again to a war zone. It is on our behalf that politicians seeking our vote publicly declare a war in progress to be immoral or wrong war, wrong, time, wrong place, or compare our troops to Nazis or Stalin or Pol Pot. It is on our behalf that political games are played with surges and drawdowns, announcing to our enemies when we will quit the battlefield.
It is on your behalf and mine that combat rules of engagement (ROE) emphasize extreme caution about civilians even when that elevates the risk to our own troops. It is on our behalf that the leadership measures victory in world opinion rather than conquest by overwhelming force.
It is arguable that our leadership’s new obsession with news cycles and combat restraint is the root cause that America’s enemies no longer fear us and some friends no longer respect us.
It is on our behalf that the deficit commission results may require draconian defense cuts even while our troops are in harm’s way, even while untold billions of political pet projects remain in the defense budget over military objections. We are responsible for that train wreck.
I admit to having a deep love and respect for every uniformed U.S. boot on the ground and butt in a cockpit, but I also have an abiding mistrust of our political and military leadership. Rising to the top ranks requires political savvy, and they sometimes do not act in the best interest of our troops. Here’s one example.
Michael Yon is a highly regarded war correspondent in Afghanistan, a former soldier. He recent wrote an open letter to the Secretary of Defense about the U.S. Army’s policy of displaying red crosses on Army medevac helicopters, and therefore by Geneva Convention they may not be armed. Since a red cross is simply used as a bull’s eye by our enemy, the U.S. Air Force, Marines and British helicopters have removed them so they can carry weapons to defend themselves.
Here’s why it matters more than it would appear. While the U.S. Army refuses to remove the red crosses, operating without weapons means they are not allowed to pick up wounded in an unsecure area unless and until helicopter gunships arrive to provide them cover, just as I did long ago in Vietnam.
The problem is in Afghanistan the distances are vast, the gunships too few, and delays mean more wounded die before reaching a hospital. But the Army won’t budge. See why I don’t trust them?
If you really do care, there are a few things you can do. You can write a letter to your Congressman and Senators and President to tell them to help the Army pull its head out of its stubborn butt, tell them if they want your vote they better stop playing politics with our troops. My critics think I say these things as a political ploy against Democrats, but Republicans disgust me, too, just not quite so much as Democrats.
Right here in Peachtree City there are a few things you can do to say thanks to our troops. You can help Father David Epps and the Marine Corps in their annual Toys for Tots program (see http://newnan-ga.toysfortots.org).
Cathy McMullen in Peachtree City continues her efforts to help improve the lives of kids through a program named Embracing Military Families (see http://www.embracingmilitaryfamilies.blogspot.com/).
Mimi’s Good Food on Ga. Highway 54 at Petrol Point, my coffee hangout, will be collecting donations to send goodies to our troops again this year.
All these programs need and depend on your help, a way to multiply your good will to those doing the dirty work in our stead.
Show our current troops your support where it counts. That is the greatest gift I know you could ever give a vet on Veterans Day.
[Terry Garlock of Peachtree City occasionally contributes a column to The Citizen. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.]