Your dad was in the military, or your brother, your boyfriend, girlfriend, your uncle, cousin, neighbor down the street…or maybe you were or are right now. The military isn’t some distant, abstract entity. They are us.
But… misunderstandings are rampant.
Before we dive in to still another third-rail topic, you should know that for four years in college I was a stereotypical hippie: Long hair, beard, peace sign around my neck, protest marches. Yep, all of the above. But… Shortly after, I was also a captain in the Air Force, a jet pilot, a Tempest officer, and a LES (launch enable officer) for the Titan II missile. How do those two reconcile?
Growing up, my dad had been a naval officer, plus a freelance writer, writing mostly about the military experiences he’d undergone, WWII…and so my views were at first shaped and shaded by his perceptions.
BUT then… My own first personal experience with the military was much different. I’d been away at college, studying for exams and got a call from an old high school buddy. He had called to say that John Lindaberry had just died in Vietnam and that his body was being shipped home. He was 18 years old. His funeral was going to be that weekend and to get my ass back to New Jersey. Though it doesn’t really matter to you, John was a little guy, short, huge glasses, and funny as hell. There was a group of us and we’d cruise around Mendham and Chester and Long Valley, looking for girls in my old Chevy, and listening to 77 WABC while John kept all of us entertained. He was great at making up naughty lyrics to the Top 40. But then, eventually, Big Chill-style, we all split up at graduation. We all went our separate ways.
At the funeral, the big thing I remember was the huge American flag draped across his coffin. When John’s dad showed up, he was furious and the flag was removed. John’s letters home from him had been sad…pathetic. He had bequeathed his music collection to Mark, the guy who’d called me up. This too-little guy with the big glasses had known weeks in advance that he wasn’t going to make it. And then it happened, exactly as he had predicted. Back at F&M I went right to numb. BUT… and this is important: I’m not laying groundwork for a diss-article on the military. Much the opposite, though I have to take my time here, so some of the younger generations who don’t know WWI from WWII from Korea, from Vietnam…can just possibly get it straight.
America didn’t just have one Civil War, the North vs. the South, they had two: Colloquially, it was dubbed the Hippies vs. the Hardhats… Effete pot-smoking liberal rich kids at college vs. blue-collar construction workers who were…cannon fodder. They got drafted and went to Vietnam and every night on the news, they’d show the caskets being loaded into C-141 Starlifters for the flight back home. Oh, and by the way, thousands upon thousands of college kids came back in boxes as well. It just didn’t make for interesting news. That was the spin, and it divided families, sometimes brothers, neighbors, moms and dads from their kids, very much like the other civil war. Only this one was more insidious. Households fragmented…quietly and invisibly.
In the blink of an eye, my proud patriotic father suddenly viewed me, his bearded, long-haired son as a commie-pinko-sympathizing-effete piece of shit. Mom disagreed, but then Mom and I had always communicated. When war was declared and it came down to short strokes, I enlisted in the Air Force, went to officer training, and then pilot training and…wonder of wonders, when I returned home on leave, suddenly that effete “p.o.s.” had transformed to that great guy again. Well…….not really. I hadn’t been a commie, and I hadn’t been a coward, but I’d had some huge questions about Vietnam before I enlisted and seeing things up-close as an officer did not dispel those concerns. Unfortunately, history confirmed some of the worst of them. No other country had succeeded in Vietnam. We didn’t either. Think of Afghanistan today…
What was really bizarre, surreal, call it what you like, was what I learned in OTS, (officer training). I had assumed that the military was basically stogie-smoking, hard-assed, blood thirsty killers…and that wasn’t the case, anymore than my being a commie. My flight, Flight 17, to use short-hand, was pretty much the same as me. The surreal kicker was when we had a weekend leave and went into the city of San Antonio to see the movie, Hair. I had gone from looking very much like Jesus Christ at F&M to a pale, bald, skinny OT, officer trainee. Four of us went into the movie theater…in uniform. We weren’t allowed to wear anything else. We sat through the movie, while getting heckled, given the finger and…spat on. FYI: Getting spat on is a very basic thing. As a guy, it’s the lynch-pin just before the fight breaks out…which we were forbidden to do by our commanding officer. I tried to reason with a few of the “hippies.” I pulled out a photo of me with my long hair and guess what, it didn’t do anything, but infuriate them more.
If you haven’t personally served or been the mate of someone who has, here are a couple of things you should know because somewhere along the line, the message gets lost. Military men…and women aren’t any different than civilians. Every single officer and enlisted man was first…a civilian. They are handsome and they are ugly, short, and tall, and they are also our brothers and sisters and dads and uncles. They are us…in uniform. And yet…we are different because of what we have experienced.
Four years at Franklin and Marshall College and decades later, the major thing I took away from it wasn’t Kant’s Critique of Pure Reasoning, or differential equations…they taught me how to think and reason and argue…logically.
In the same amount of time in the US Air Force, I learned much weightier things: How to take responsibility for my actions, and more importantly to take responsibility for the welfare of the men under me. It’s one sentence, but it’s effing huge….. One month in the military and you may very well experience more responsibility than the entire rest of your life as a civilian. It is a heady experience and it is never forgotten.
When you first walk into the military meat grinder, you are a “rainbow”. That’s the term for civilians and civilian dress. They immediately strip-away every single affectation. No beards, moustaches, designer boots. Your fancy car? It doesn’t exist. It’s just you… a bald, skinny larva in a sea of identical larva. And it’s up to you to shine on your own merits. Sound horrible? No, it isn’t. It’s actually a good thing. It’s the best. Racism? It goes out the window in the first ten minutes. Stereotypes? Gone. You’re all equal. Women? There’s still a big asterisk on that category, but more about that later.
More good stuff: If you are going to survive, you learn almost instantly that your word is everything. Everything. If you tell your superior officer that you’ve completed your job or you will show up at a certain time, by God, it better be true. Get flippant with your commander…sass him back, cut him off… it’s called insubordination and I guarantee, you will only do it once. That much, everyone learns. Sound harsh? Not really. To steal from Judy Collins, “I’ve looked at life from both sides now” and keeping your word is always the way…the only way.
Who Starts Wars? It seems like the Army, Navy, Air Force, and the Marines start wars…and it ain’t true. Civilians start wars, and more specifically, our congress and the president of the United States. The military is literally the muscle, the might behind the decisions made by…civilians. The captain of the USS Nimitz doesn’t wake up one morning and decide to chug over to the Persian Gulf. A Navy F-18 Hornet fighter pilot doesn’t saunter on deck, strap-in and think, “Let’s see, what am I going to shoot at today.” He receives a direct order, and he follows that order. In retrospect, the hippies giving the finger to the returning vets had it all wrong. They should have been giving the finger to their congressmen and senators.
Peace Signs and American Flags: During Vietnam the two were polar opposites, like a Union Flag flying next to a Confederate Flag. And that misunderstanding still persists today in some areas. When I showed up at Columbus, Mississippi, for pilot training I was driving a slick, fancy Shelby GT-350. On each rocker panel was a sticker of an American Flag…right next to a Peace Sign. I was stopped, trying to get on base (it was a vest pocket SAC base by the way…Strategic Air Command with two B-52s tucked away…just in case). They wouldn’t let me come through the gates. I asked them to get the base commander on the line…which they did. He was at the O Club when I called. He said, “Ya can’t come on with a peace sign, lieutenant.” To which I replied, “Sir: What’s the motto for the Strategic Air Command?” Silence…followed by, “Peace is Our Profession, lieutenant. C’mon in…but I’m gonna be watchin’ you.”
Loyalty: Here’s the thing most civilians don’t get. I didn’t, until I was in long enough to have men under me…with me. Men I was responsible for, and who were responsible for me as well. It’s basically survival and there’s not a lot of tighter bonds than men watching out for each other’s backs. It’s not loyalty to country…just too abstract. It’s not really loyalty to your branch. It’s the guys you need to survive, and buddies you want flying back in a transport…not a box. It’s that crudely basic…and it’s that beautiful.
Responsibility to Our Returning Servicemen: We are not doing so hot on that front right now and it needs to change……right now. PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is real, not imagined. General Patton was wrong.
Suicides: In many instances the death rate for our boys and men is higher due to suicides than for battle. There is a reason for this and it must be addressed…now, not later.
Keeping Your Promises: All four branches train us that the most valuable thing we have…is our word. We get it. We learn it. It is ingrained in our guts. But… When our boys come home, and they need an artificial leg, a new arm, PTSD treatment…by God, give it to them…….
Women in the Military: Okay…here is where all four branches are screwing-up big time. We know it. They know it and it has to stop…right now. Women in the military are literally our daughters, our moms, our aunts, our girlfriends. There is zero excuse for allowing them to be abused or for turning a blind eye. This is a problem whose solution is waaaay overdue. Generals, admirals, colonels, officers and enlisted… It’s time. You wouldn’t stand for your wife or girlfriend to be abused…and that is exactly what is happening.
A Bit of Irony: Chicken Hawks: When a group of ex-military guys get together, rarely will you hear them yucking it up about killing someone or bombing a village back to the Stone Age. It just doesn’t happen. Unlike video games and some dumbass TV shows, it isn’t that way. Strangely, the ones you do hear frothing and ranting, shaking their fists and complaining are the guys who never showed up for the fight. You don’t show up, that’s fine. Just…put a cork in it.
A Final Point: Cannon Fodder: There has always been a profound misunderstanding between parents of boys in the military…and people protesting the war. It’s insane. It’s stupid. The issue is, to put it bluntly, the term: cannon fodder. When your son or daughter, husband, wife or best friend goes off to war…you want that war to mean something. You want it to be because it’s necessary. You have a right and a duty to be disgusted if your son or daughter is getting sent off because Exxon or Mobile need more oil fields. History has proved beyond a doubt that Vietnam was a HUGE mistake. The protesters, goofy and creepy and unwashed as they may have looked, were protesting something that was wrong. Make sure your congressmen and senators and…president treat your (our) sons and daughters with respect and concern for their well being. They are not…cannon fodder.
Henry (formerly Captain Harvey, USAF)
P.S. There’s no secret handshake among men who have served in the military, but there is…something. It’s a look and it lasts for about a quarter-of-a-second. It’s an understanding. It says, “yeah…. I get it.” It means: If I give you my word…that’s it…period. No need for adverbs, adjectives, or explanations.
And there’s an instantaneous way to tell who was in the military and who wasn’t: Agree to meet them at, say, seven pm, it doesn’t matter for what. The ex-military will be there…at seven pm, not seven-thirty-ish or eight o’clock. Or if, they have a flat…you’ll get a call. It’s a little thing…representing a huge thing.
P.P.S. John… It’s been 47 years… And yet, here we are. Yeah, you left a legacy, buddy. Rest assured you will always be remembered, liked, and loved.