Veteran's Day... From Our Family's Vantage Point
I come from a family of veterans. Yet only one is still alive. My dad was a veteran of WorldWar II, my uncle was also, but he was in the Pacific theater. My father-in-law went to the Korean War. My husband went to Viet Nam, and the Gulf War. My cousin's son also went to the War in the Gulf. Everyone is gone except Ron.
I honor all veterans of all wars, those with incredible patriotism and courage to be willing to fight and die for our rights here in America. Today, I'm reminded that we don't always honor these vets and their sacrifices. We are a country of pulling your self up by your bootstraps. So when our veterans come back with problems, physical or mental, it goes against the grain. We are willing to rally around them while they are returning and/or recovering ...initially. But we soon get busy with our lives and forget their needs. We agree with politicians who want to cut their benefits. We give them substandard care at some of the VA hospitals. But those soldiers and airmen believed America when they were told they would be cared for. They had just made enormous sacrifices for us. They had no idea they'd be caught up in some bureaucratic faceless nightmare down the road.
My dad was on one of the boats sitting in the harbor while the first wave of D-Day set off land mines with their own bodies on the beaches of Normandy. He and his crews would bring their tanks across there 2 days later. He told me that all he could remember from those 3 days was the smell of vomit and fear and tears as they watched the fates of the troops before them and awaited an unsure future for themselves.
He talked about hedgerows and being so quiet they could hear the Germans whispering on the other side and smell their particular cigarettes. He was only 23 when we went to war, but he was never able to go to Octoberfests for the rest of his life. The whispering of German voices nearby him made the hair on the back of his neck rise.
My dad was promoted to Captain and led tanks across France. At one point, his tank was hit with a grenade. All in his unit were melted into the steel, while he was shot out of the hatch like a cork. He recovered in a Belgian hospital, and at some point, was given a key to the city and a bag of diamonds. They considered it small compensation for giving them their country back.
As you can see, my memories of his wartime history are sketchy. He's been gone a long time and, yes, I should have taken notes. But I was a kid, and laptops weren't around in the '70s. He and my mom did go to a reunion for his battalion. She said they treated him like a king. They were so happy to see him and reminisce on the days so long ago. He ended up only going to two reunions. He found them terribly depressing. I think it must be sad to be reminded of so much death.
My Uncle Jack quit high school and forged his ID so he could join the Marines. He spent time in the Pacific, but my knowledge of much more than that is sparse.
My father-in-law never talked about his experience in the Korean War. But I am painfully aware of his death in the VA hospital in Dallas. His doctors had very little to say and we had a difficult time even getting him water and baths. At one point, we were all ushered into our rooms and told to stay there, someone in the hallway was angry and wielding a gun. No one was shot, and Ron stayed with him until the end... which came much quicker than any of us anticipated.
My husband, Ron's, draft lottery number was 2. Recognizing the inevitability of it all, he joined the Air Force in the middle of his senior year at Mesquite High School. He went to Utapao, Thailand, and became a B52 mechanic. Under "sappers", he crawled through the B52s searching for satchel charges which are basically bombs. He served 4 years before he came home. He was so disappointed to see the protestors' anti-war sentiment when he returned through the San Francisco airport four years later. Not that he expected anyone to be PRO-war, he didn't anticipate them being anti-soldier.
Years later, when we were trying to figure out a way to afford to be a one-income family, he decided to rejoin the military, but this time as an officer. He sworn in in September of '98 and he was transferred to an 119th Evacuation Hospital out of Greensboro, NC. He managed the reservists while continuing to work on his degree. By Thanksgiving, he was packing out for Saudi Arabia. He was part of the advanced team to go and set up a hospital in the middle of the desert. They did just that. The Christmas holidays were quickly approaching, I was pregnant with Katie. Michael was a toddler and hadn't turned two yet. We had moved back home to my mom's in Dallas to wait out the war.
Three days before Christmas, he was told they were just to stay put out in the desert and the reservists would join them after New Year's Day. The four of them just looked at each other. They had completed their work there. And while their families were braced to spend the holidays without them, they couldn't see a real need for that to happen. So they hatched a plan. The senior officer wrote some orders and they hopped a plane to Germany. From there, they road across the Atlantic bundled up in blankets in jeeps and other vehicles that were being transported back. It was cold in those big C5s! But there was adrenaline rushing and they wanted to get home to surprise their families. They landed at Dover and all split up. Each was going to take a different route to their families and then meet back together on New Year's Day. They'd beat the troops back to the desert before they'd even know they had been AWOL. Or that was the plan. So Ron hitchhiked to catch a flight out of Philadelphia. He'd have to get to Dallas by way of O'Hare in Chicago. There he was, in his desert BDU's, still covered in sand (who had time or place to clean up?), a 45 in hand. Times were different then. The public seemed to feel badly about the treatment of the Viet Nam vets, so they rallied behind the troops. He got a ride and actually made the flight. He knew he couldn't part with his weapon, but even during pre-9/11 security days, letting him sit in his seat with it wasn't going to happen. They put it in a bin that he could keep visual contact with from his seat. Recognizing that he was clearly "just in from the desert," they bumped him to 1st class and gave him a bottle of champagne to take home. The entire plane cheered.
Back in Dallas, I was finally getting to sleep. Michael had gotten up with his last glass of water. I finally had closed my eyes. Suddenly, I heard the doorbell, and was awake. There was another knock at the door. I looked through the peep hole. Every military wife's nightmare: a man in uniform knocking at the door. I could see the light from the taxi at the curb. I turned my back to the door. My mom came out and just looked at me horror-stricken. My 2-year old wandered down the hall to see what the commotion was. I was paralyzed. I must not have stood there for very long, and Ron was able to see that the light had come on in the front hallway. But the door wasn't opening. Then I heard a familiar voice shout, "Open the damn door, Sue!" And, right on cue, I did. There he was, ears caked with sand, his sack of clothes over his shoulder. He waved the cabbie on. Did he think we might not be home at 2 a.m.?
Anyway, if you're curious, his commanding officers did hear where they were and simply looked away. They rejoined their troops just after New Year's and continued back to Saudi Arabia until May. He missed the birth of Katie, which happened in February - the day after the war officially ended. We claimed that she was a protestor in utero and refused to come out until it was OVER. So the hospital dubbed her Kuwaiti Katie.
Ron went on to finish his 20 years active duty with the Air Force. We started at Lackland AFB in San Antonio, TX, Elmendorf AFB in Anchorage, AK, Travis AFB in Fairfield, CA, then Sheppard AFB, Wichita Falls, TX.
My cousin's son returned with serious PTSD and ultimately committed suicide. Ron's cousin never recovered from his own stint in Viet Nam. Sometimes things go well and sometimes they do not. But all are left with life experiences that most of us cannot even fathom.
I'd just like to personalize Veteran's Day for you a little bit. Real people making extraordinary sacrifices. All so we can sit safely in our living rooms, vote in elections, raise our kids as we see fit. When you get frustrated with how politics works or how the economy is or how America "ain't what it used to be," remember that men and women endured a great deal so you could be here.
I received an email today with these numbers: 850,000 unemployed veterans are living here in our country, and more than a million will be returning from Iraq and Afganistan in the next few months and years. That's a lot. And they're going to need jobs. And insurance. And health care. If you're in a position to help them, please do. And if you're not, simply vote in a way that thanks them for their service.
Happy Veterans' Day.
Thank you to all who have served. We are so proud of you.
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