Doug Smith: Our veterans have earned our memory – our honor – our gratitude.

29 Sep

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It is easier to find men who will volunteer to die, than to find those who are willing to endure pain with patience.

Gaius Julius Caesar

No state has an inherent right to survive through conscript troops and, in the long run, no state ever has. Roman matrons used to say to their sons: Come back with your shield, or on it. Later on, this custom declined. So did Rome.

Robert Heinlein

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Doug Smith is a historian who proudly served our nation in the Navy aboard the submarine “USS Gato”.  He is also Free State Patriot associate editor.

September 29, 2019


 

All of us who wore the uniform have a place in our hearts, a quick tear, easily brought forth, by the memory of the guys who never made it home. We remember the guys trapped below decks on the Arizona, the 1st wave on Omaha Beach, the B-17 crews blown to bits high over a target, boys whose last sight was a dirty rice paddy in Vietnam. Yes, we remember our fallen.

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But on the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month, in the year of grace 1918, as the guns fell silent across the front in France, we began a tradition of remembrance of those who served, and suffered, and lived. We who lived to grow to silver hair and old age remember boys who did not, comrades, friends, youngsters, who served in some of the same places and ways that we did. Yet it is fitting that we remember those who came home now full of years, and full of memories of the things that they, and we, did.

Caesar was right: the things the veteran must endure are remarkable and much to ask. It is not easy to persuade people to endure them, even though Heinlein’s observation is equally correct: a society in which that small percentage refuses to stand to and endure will itself, not endure. We look around us and note that our numbers are small, indeed. In WW2, some 16 million served, about 12% of the population. Most numbers are far smaller, perhaps 7% at most serve. So vanishingly few know, from experience, what we know about the day to day realities that make a Veteran. Some have read, or seen movies, or heard Sea Stories, ( which of course, are never crippled by the constraints of truth or reality) but only a tiny handful know because we have seen and felt it.

But we know.

We know the loneliness. Ask any Vet, no matter where they served, and you will find nodding heads. Yes, we endured times of crushing loneliness. We spend Christmas Eve s surrounded by strangers, in places far from the familiar sounds and smells and sights that equal home. We often do mundane jobs far from parents, sweethearts, wives, husbands, and children. The jobs may demand much, or not, but they demand us; far from where we would rather be. So we trudge on and get the job done, get the mission accomplished, while feeling that aching emptiness from faces we can see, but not touch. All of us together, feeling that ache, sharing the place and the time, find that it is endurable, if just barely, because the people next to us know. They are there too. We may miss WV, while they miss Brooklyn, or Missouri, but together we form a new family: our brothers, and a new home town: the outfit, the company, the boat. The place where we endure loneliness together becomes our home, and the people, our brothers. That is how we survive. That is how we endure.

We know the fatigue. Sleep? What exactly is that? In the brief moments we try it, we perfect the art of sleeping anywhere, anytime, on anything. A torpedo skid, a gun mount, a tow motor, a stack of boxes, a hole, wet, cold, hard, hot, sandy, doesn’t matter. We get so tired that if 5 minutes comes our way to close our eyes, we sleep. Perhaps not well, or for long. From the 1st way too early morning we began our lifelong hatred of the word Reveille. This hatred was underscored by an entirely unreasonable Ape kicking a 30 gallon metal GI can and introducing us to our first bit of military poetry: grab your socks and drop your; well, you know the poem. You just finished it in your head. We began to get an inkling that an uninterrupted 8 hours of sleep was an entirely civilian phenomenon. We also began to understand that we were civilians no longer. We had no idea how poorly we would ever again fit that world. But sleep? Wake up, you got the watch. General Quarters, All Hands Man Your Battle Stations. All hand turn to, clean up ship. In the rack promptly at 2300. Up at 0200 for the dogwatch. Back in the rack at 0400. Back up at 0600 for cleanup. Chow at 0700. Muster for Quarters at 0800. Did I sleep? I can’t remember. 9 to 5 and a 40 hour week, again, were relics of that left behind world. We worked till it was done, or until we dropped. Sleep? That was a luxury, and there were few luxuries.

We should mention coffee. SSAM. Soldier, Sailor, Airman, Marine: we all learned about coffee. Hot, if possible. Strong? We left strong behind a long time ago. Military coffee, Navy Coffee, as I came to love it, ranged from suitable for cleaning valves, to paint thinner, to the really strong stuff. Too old? Too strong? These are, again, strictly civilian concepts. If it was vaguely brown, and had at some point been above body temperature, and could still be poured, or cut into pieces and placed into a cup, we would drink it. Lots of it. It was at first, a poor substitute for the sleep we could never get enough of, and later, our buddy, our pal, our mate, Ambrosia and Nectar, Breakfast of Champions, Food of the Gods, The Water of Life. In cups, tin cups, steel pots, mess kits, whatever would hold it for us, we moved from coffee to coffee, working, cleaning, and functioning in between on the familiar acid warmth in the guts that is our Coffee. All praise to the Coffee.

We know the boredom. The old saw is that military life is hour after endless hour of sheer, mind numbing tedium and boredom, interrupted now and then by seconds or minutes of sheer terror. We can nod our heads in knowing agreement, because we fought a constant battle with boredom. We would do anything to break up the tedium once the work was done. For we could not leave, but must just hurry with our work, then wait. And wait. Pinochle, Cribbage, Euchre, Poker, Backgammon, Acey Duecy, Chess, Checkers, these were all our little friends in the battle. Long watches at night on the Bridge, 20 questions, discussions about baseball, food from back home (a very popular subject), wives, sweethearts, girls, ( also a very popular subject.) And then there were the jokes.

How much time to we have? We have gone for a bucket of steam, 6 feet of waterline, a bag of exhaust from a jeep, a frame for the sight picture, the mail buoy watch, a jar of relative bearing grease. If we were feeling extra bored we might treat a boot to the sight of a Sea Bat, or send him to wake the CO to ask for permission to retrieve the Mail Buoy. If we were extra brutal, we could always send for a Machinists Punch. Military folks develop a truly unique and somewhat morbid sense of humor; another reason Veterans never “quite” fit in with the true civilians.

Veterans learned these hardships, and pain. Pain was a constant companion. Short hours of sleep on a hard and oddly shaped surface left sore backs, butts, and necks. Odd eating habits, working in dim light, breathing fumes or low O2 often left headaches. Aspirins or APC tablets (remember those? Aspirin, Phenylthaline, and Caffeine, an ancient and sovereign cure for what ails ye) were carried in bulk containers by Medics and Corpsman. Hands skinned on the job, knees from crawling or kneeling, ankles from walking or marching. Head, neck, back, arms, hands, butt, legs, knees, ankles, feet, stomach: something always hurt.

Food. We learned to eat what we had. We had some odd loves. And odd language. The typical civilian, offered a plate of “expletive” on a Shingle, will back away from you as if you were mad. We would gobble it up. Meals were sometimes hot and plentiful, but often interrupted, sometimes out of a can, put away for your grandfather, but still good enough for you to survive. Ice cream took on an almost mystical importance. We could sail the world, and charge the gates of hell on Spam, Peanut Butter, Ice Cream, and Coffee. Another of those things civilians never quite get about us is finishing our meal in 3 minutes. We are not here to socialize, we are here to eat. Get it down, while you can.

We come away with strange reflexes. Some of us jump at sharp noises. Some of us can’t stand anyone behind us. Some of us have to have a fan on to sleep, and wake instantly if the power goes off and that background hum ceases.

We tend to speak a common, almost English, but still very foreign language. When we speak of shit cans, bulkheads, making a head call, FUBAR, SNAFU, REMF, Short Timers, Salts, civilians stare at us, but Veterans smile and nod in recognition: Brother. We find the Anglo Saxon monosyllable beginning with F to be a most useful and versatile noun, verb, adjective, adverb, exclamation, pronoun, and gerund. It amazes us as much that civilians do NOT use it with regularity, as it shocks them that we do. It is simply the most useful and descriptive word we know.

Yes, Veterans are an odd lot. We endured a life like few ever know. By and large we chose that life. Most will never understand why we did, or, upon hearing our stories, how we stayed and endured. We were not all wounded, and unlike our honored dead, we all came home. Yet if we came home alive, and if not unwounded, at least functioning, we did not come home unchanged. We left something of ourselves behind. We may believe that we brought home a great deal, but we never fool ourselves that it was without cost.

Yet, we echo the question of President Lincoln: Can any nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the premise that all men are created equal long endure? And for the Veteran, regardless the reasons to put on the uniform, adventure, boredom, escape, opportunity, patriotism; the idea gels before long that we have , at least, our answer to President Lincoln’s question. It will endure, if I have anything to say about it. I will take my oath seriously, and through loneliness, boredom, pain, and hardship, and if necessary, placing my life between “my loved home and war’s desolation”.

So we take this moment, born when the guns of August fell silent that November morning, and remember at this time, not those who died, but those who answered the call. We remember those who said, whatever it takes, nobody will get through me, and get to you. Kids can play in the park with their folks because we will stop any evil trying to reach them. We remember the ones, who, on that November morning, looked around and said, We’ve made it. We remember those who did not know, perhaps till much later, just what they had paid, and what it had cost for them to stand to and hold the line. We remember those who determined that they would pay the cost, whatever it was, even if it were a cost that they would be paying the rest of their lives. We remember those who say, decades later, full of years, softer, greyer, thinning on top, thickening in the middle, older but still proud, knowing it all, I would still do it again. We remember what they did, what they were, what they are, and what they meant to the country we live in, and what they mean still.

It has become a more common thing these days for civilians to greet Veterans they see with the words, Thank you for your service. Many of us are not sure just how to respond to that. We are grateful that they are not showing the disrespect are brothers faced after Vietnam coming home. But we are just a bit embarrassed and not sure how to respond to the civilians thanking us.

But not so with other Veterans. We remember how it was. We remember our comrades in arms. Our brothers. We give you respect.

We remember you.

 

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