Thoughts for Veterans Day

By | November 11, 2013 | 0 Comments

Vietnam Memorial

It is the soldier, not the reporter,
Who has given us freedom of the press.
It is the soldier, not the poet,
Who has given us freedom of speech.
It is the soldier, not the campus organizer,
Who has given us the freedom to demonstrate.
It is the soldier who salutes the flag,
Who serves beneath the flag,
And whose coffin is draped by the flag,
Who allows the protester to burn the flag.

Father Denis E. O’Brien, USMC (attributed)

America is not at war. The Marine Corps is at war. America is at the mall.
− Note on blackboard, USMC OCS, Quantico, VA

The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.
− John F. Kennedy

For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “chuck him out, the brute!”
But it’s “Saviour of ’is country” when the guns begin to shoot.
– Rudyard Kipling, “Tommy

We only win when we play on the road. We lose when it’s a home game.
– Oliver North, “The Assassins,” discussing terrorism

November 11 is Veterans Day. Some cities have parades or other ceremonies to honor those who have served their country in uniform, often at the risk of their lives. Other cities ignore the day and its deep meaning. Of course, it is difficult to appreciate the deep meaning of anything if we ourselves are shallow.

Last week my wife and I were in San Diego. At the motel, we ran into a reunion of veterans of the USS Constellation. I was reminded that some time ago, I accompanied my wife there for a convention of psychologists. By chance, the hotel where the convention was being held was also the site of another meeting. As we left the hotel to go out for dinner, the lobby was filled with Marines. Most were in dress blues, while senior officers and noncoms were in the even fancier evening dress.

I stopped a major and asked what the occasion was. He replied, “It’s the Marine Corps Birthday.” I asked, “Isn’t that November 10?” He explained, “Yes, but sometimes that doesn’t fit in with our schedule.” I wondered whether what was on their schedule was merely a training exercise, or a deployment to the Middle East.

Traditions and symbols are important. They inspire us to carry on when it is easier, or safer, to quit. The Marines arriving for that function were living examples of this truth. We are doing our best to erase traditions and symbols from civilian life, but they remain strong in our military.

When we returned from dinner, the Marines’ function had broken up. A group of officers and senior noncommissioned officers were in the bar. One large man had the impressive sleeve insignia of three chevrons, four rockers, and a flaming bomb.


Master Gunnery Sergeant

As we waited for an elevator, we were joined by four junior Marine enlisted men. I asked a corporal whether the insignia I had seen was for a sergeant major. Being many years older than when I was in the Army Reserve, I wasn’t current on Marine insignia. The young man replied that the person I described was a master gunnery sergeant or “master guns.”

My wife then pointed to his brief row of medals and asked what they represented. I recognized the Good Conduct Medal – a colleague of mine had one − and I think the Iraq Campaign Medal. But the young man modestly replied, “They tell a story.” Indeed they do, but only to those willing to listen. And that excludes a great many people today.

The next day we went on a cruise of San Diego Bay. We struck up a conversation with a middle-aged man in civilian clothes, who kept his camera busy photographing the many ships in port, including two nuclear carriers. He turned out to be Navy petty officer. I mentioned the Marine function we had blundered into, and he replied, “I take care of Marines.” I assumed he was a hospital corpsman, and this proved to be correct as he described a trauma course he had recently attended.


Chief Hospital Corpsman

My wife, ever the psychologist, mentioned post-traumatic stress disorder, expecting the man to talk about patients he had treated. Instead he replied, “Yes, a lot of us have it.” I gathered he had spent time in Iraq or Afghanistan, but didn’t feel I should pursue the matter. But then the man added, “I want to go back, if they let me.” That really said it all.

We bumped into him again as we disembarked from the tour boat. He touched my shoulder and said, “God bless you.” As he disappeared into the crowd, I said loudly, “You too,” but I’m not sure he heard me. I hope he did. I had only a vague idea of what “going back” would mean for him. But at least I knew enough not to disrespect him by mispronouncing his military occupational specialty as “corpse-man,” as did his commander-in-chief.

Oh, I forgot to mention something that seemed entirely unremarkable at the time. The three service members we spoke to by chance were white, African American, and Filipino American. We all talk about equal opportunity, but our military actually puts it into effect.

Now we are back in Los Angeles, where people in uniform are much rarer than in San Diego, where master gunnery sergeants are not found in hotel lobbies, and where a man who devotes his life to “taking care of Marines” is not someone you are likely to encounter by chance. But you know what? We’ve lived in Los Angeles for years. It’s our home. Our work and our friends are here. But somehow, I felt more at home during those few days in San Diego than here in L.A.

Why? I’ll tell you why. Many of the things I see and hear, and many of the people I meet, are shallow. Think about it:

● Long-running, popular TV series like “Law and Order” and “Deadwood” just stop. They don’t reach a conclusion. They simply end, leaving no hint about what becomes of the characters with whom we’ve become familiar. Perhaps the TV people were interested only in making money and didn’t really care about the characters they created, so they assumed we didn’t care, either.

● Popular music doesn’t conclude. Much of it merely fades out, as if the composer can’t figure out how to end it, and simply turns down the volume. Elvis Presley singing “Love Me Tender” came to a conclusion. Johnny Cash singing “I Walk the Line” came to an end. I can’t picture them just fading away. They weren’t the just-fade-away type.

● Many people are as shallow their favorite TV shows and music. They don’t date; they just “hook up.” Their friendships, their affairs, even their marriages (if any) don’t end in breakups; many just fade away. The relationships don’t end with emotion, even negative emotion. They just diminish gradually until nothing is left.

● Many people regard national and international events just as they live their personal lives – with little real feeling. They may or may not vote, but they don’t really care who wins. They may or may not approve of our war in Afghanistan, but they don’t really care who wins.

● Many Americans would return a blank stare if you mentioned the names of Medal of Honor recipients Ty Carter, Salvatore Giunta, Ross McGinnis, Dakota Meyer, Robert Miller, Michael Monsoor, Jared Monti, Michael Murphy, Leroy Petry, Clinton Romesha, Paul Smith, and William Swenson.

● Likewise, many Brits and Aussies would not recognize the names of Victoria Cross recipients James Ashworth, Johnson Beharry, Bryan Budd, Mark Donaldson, Daniel Keighran, and Ben Roberts-Smith.

Granted, it’s not entirely their fault. The mainstream media give front-page coverage to alleged abuses by our troops, but underplay or ignore completely their sacrifices and heroism. Still, citizens have a responsibility to inform themselves. They can use the Internet as well as I can. They can see how our heroes should be honored as well as I can.

These people abandon their spouses if the going gets rough. They abandon a friend at work if they sense that he has fallen out of favor with the boss. They would not, in their wildest dreams, risk their lives repeatedly for their friends. Such people are too shallow for deep commitments. To them, your honor is a title for judges, not a guide to live by.

So perhaps you will understand if sometimes I tire of shallow people with their shallow opinions, their shallow relationships, and their shallow loyalties. Sometimes I yearn for serious people with deep loyalties. Sometimes I despair of finding such people. But sometimes I am really lucky, and meet them in hotel lobbies and on harbor cruises. These are the people to whom we owe our freedom. These are the people I think about on Veterans Day.

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