November 10, 2011

What It Means to Be a Veteran

I've been thinking all day about what it means to be a veteran of the United States military.

To me, it's being in an exclusive club -- the finest, most exclusive club ever. It's knowing that, no matter how bad things may get in my life, I will have someone, another vet, around to listen and understand.

It means I've lived in the certainty that, even if I didn't like another sailor or soldier or airman, or he, me, if things got serious, we could count on each other, perhaps even to death.

It means having lost brothers or sisters in horrible ways the majority of Americans cannot imagine. Being a veteran also is friendships that'll never be lost, even if you never see that person again, or speak to him or her.

You might say I come from a military family, but not in the traditional sense. My dad's dad was in the Canadian Army, I recently learned. One of his older brothers, my great-uncle Jesse, was a U.S. Naval officer in WWI. In WWII, both my mom's younger brothers were in the Navy, as well, as SeaBees (Construction Battalion) island-hopping across the Pacific with the Marines. My dad quit high school and joined the Navy as well after Pearl Harbor. I have a cousin who, like me, is a Vietnam-era vet. He was a Marine with an in-country tour under his belt. I had other friends who served. Some of them died; some served, but have never told me. Nonetheless, they all served honorably, my dad through the end of the Korean War.

I never had a chance to talk to my gran'pa or great uncle about their experiences. They died when I was very young. Only one time did I ever hear my dad or his brothers-in-law talk to any extent about their war experiences. They just didn't say much about 'em. But one night when I was in junior high school, we had a get-together at our house, and as always, the women stayed in the kitchen chatting while the men moved to another room.

They popped a couple of bottle tops and began sharing their experiences. I overheard a few things, but they gently shooed me towards the TV as the conversation grew deeper. What I saw, and what little I heard that night, were three men, not especially close in their daily lives, sharing a common experience probably none of their other friends could. I gathered that all three saw some pretty heavy action. That night, they opened up and talk about things they'd probably held inside for years.

That night, they were talking to people, other vets, you see, who would understand. There was a bond in the room, and I could feel it.

My situation was different. I was what I call a "support sailor." Not a minute of six years' active duty was aboard a ship (if you don't count the USS Neversail in San Diego). I worked in communications. It was my job, along with all the other men I worked with, to ensure that the guys doing the grunt work got the best information available as efficiently and quickly as possible.

Most of the time, it seemed a long way between what I did and the men out front. But I was around enough deep-water sailors and combat-tested Marines to respect them more than I can express. When I look back -- and I know every one of those I worked with feel the same way -- I am very proud of any small part I may have had in helping those who laid everything on the line.

Blessedly, my son and daughter did not have to answer the call I and my forebears did. Maybe their children will, however, who knows? Regardless, I pray that they will respect, and pass on that respect of, our Americans in uniform. Ours is a citizen army, perhaps the only ongoing such force the world has known. It's been that way from the beginning, because we as a nation have called upon our people to serve in times of need -- and they answered, "Yes."

So mostly, I guess, being a veteran means serving the nation, unselfishly, because it's needed. For this, if nothing else, all veterans, every one, deserve our respect -- and our thanks.

Thank God they're among us! So, maybe I'll just dance...!


Cristi Wolfram said...

Amazing as usual. Honored to know you!

Jeannie Westmoreland said...

Very well said Audie! Thank you for serving...and thank your for the article! God bless you!