Diminishing ranks of veterans
Veterans Day brings back the memory that when I was a boy more than half the men I knew had served their country. Now, when you factor out aging and dying veteran bubbles of WWII, Korea and Vietnam, by my estimate less than 5 percent of our citizens will know what it means to serve.
While the all-volunteer military wants to keep it that way, I doubt making military service rare is good for the country.
I am gratified that the vets I know are honored on Veterans Day, but I think about them all the time. I know sometimes to the young we seem like old farts telling irrelevant and exaggerated tales because we can’t let go of the past. Maybe a little bit of that is true, but a larger part of it is something that nobody can hope to understand if they were not there when the shooting started.
For my war in Vietnam, I and many others foolishly put it behind us when we came home to an anti-war country that didn’t want to hear about our experience. We quietly got on with our lives.
In 2001, more than 30 years later, I attended my very first gathering of vets and I wrote about Vietnam for the first time. I was prompted as a late-blooming first-time dad by thoughts of the twisted version of history my children would learn about my war and the finest men I have ever known. I finally became involved because I want my kids to know the truth.
A few weeks ago, eight of us gathered on a ranch in Texas, all Cobra helicopter pilots in the Vietnam War, all with the Dragon platoon of the 334th Attack Helicopter Company. This was our first gathering since the war four decades ago.
A few of us had been in contact, most had not, and greetings involved bear hugs and feelings we couldn’t hope to explain. We look different now, balding and hair turning white, expanded waistlines.
We have begun and ended careers since we last saw each other, had children and grandchildren, but it was as if there had been but a brief pause in the conversation as the years fell away and we recounted one hilarious misadventure after another as if the last time we flew together was yesterday.
We mostly skirted around the elephant in the conversation that we would come to quietly now and then, the guys who could not be there because they died doing their duty and never had the chance to live out their life.
All of us had close calls in firefights, and what fuels our pride and brotherhood is that we routinely stuck our necks out for each other and for our brothers on the ground.
Ron Hefner and I were shot down one day and badly injured with the enemy close by, in a very tight spot. John Synowsky and Graham Stevens took a huge risk in landing to help us while medevac was on the way. That was a very narrow escape for Ron and me, and after being separated at the hospital, we never did find each other.
I found Ron last year in Alabama after 40 years, which started the ball rolling for our gathering. I had been in touch with John in Texas over the years but only took the time to find Graham in Virginia in 2001 when I awoke to the fact I had been ignoring something profoundly important.
When I finally talked to him on the phone Graham told me he thought about me every day when he dressed for work because he wears a lapel pin of the Soldier’s Medal he and John received for saving lives the day Ron and I were shot down. Imagine that.
For our gathering in Texas we came from Arizona, Virginia, West Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama to cook steaks and tell lies under the clear October skies and evening stars on a ranch far from electricity and running water. We should have gathered long ago, we wasted so much time, and plans are afoot already for a larger group next year.
Every one of those guys has far more combat time in the cockpit than me, and has stories far more dramatic than my crash; a war-weary America never knew how much they deserved to be admired.
With just a gesture or a word or two, we can bring back the day Larry Pucci, an aircraft commander at just 19 years old, pulled the aircraft’s guts out flying as fast as she would go to the hospital at Tay Ninh after Wayne Hedeman in the front seat took an enemy round through the neck; Wayne bled to death on the way.
With morbid humor we recount how Graham Stevens attacked the same big enemy gun that day and was shot down in flames. He put it on the ground and in the mad scramble out of the aircraft Graham forgot his weapon and radio but would have earned a gold medal if his dash in boots to a friendly ground unit had been officially timed.
Others might not find it funny, but we laugh ourselves silly about the time Dave Rand foolishly hovered a Cobra outside the wire at night under lights, parting tall grass with rotor wash to bravely show skittish ground troops there really weren’t any bad guys hiding there when an NVA soldier stepped out of the grass and pointed a B-40 rocket at him and Dave scooted that thing into the air faster than anyone believed possible.
If you weren’t there, you wouldn’t know how tough our enemy was, and you can never fully understand the small things that bind us together.
And so it is for all vets, bound to their brothers, and sisters too, by their own secret handshake and language and history, unexplainable closeness forged in shared adversity, a connection that will not fade as long as they live. Membership in that exclusive club is one small reward of going to war.
Today’s diminishing number of warriors will make the same discovery if they have not already done so. Maybe they won’t be as foolish as so many of us were after Vietnam, burying our own past because of misguided public opinion.
Today’s troops are the most combat-experienced force ever, so many having served multiple combat tours. I hope they do find each other and tell their stories, made more important by their diminishing numbers. Nobody outside the circle of their shared experience will ever fully know them and they may discover they are always more comfortable with each other’s company than any other besides their own family.
Veteran gatherings must seem odd to outsiders, but they are men and women who will remember until their last breath being part of something far more important than the daily life back home, recalling like yesterday doing something hard shoulder-to-shoulder with others they now admire and trust.
It is America’s loss, in my opinion, that those who know this brotherhood, and the perspective on life that comes with it, are rapidly diminishing in number.
To all of them, happy Veterans Day.
[Terry Garlock lives in Peachtree City. For service in Vietnam he was awarded the Purple Heart, Bronze Star and Distinguished Flying Cross. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.]