My father was a veteran of the Korean War. He spent that war serving in Europe, assisting with the reclamation of Holland and other Allied projects. He refused to talk very much about that time in his life, but he always made clear that he hated everything about the Army, except for the opportunity to experience French culture. He’d been drafted, he didn’t want to go, and he did not have a high opinion of anyone who signed up voluntarily.
That was pretty much the sum of my exposure to the U.S. Military until I fell in love with and eventually married a Navy vet, the daughter of a Navy vet who served in three wars. Later our son celebrated his 21st birthday by enlisting in the Navy.
Listening to Linda tell her stories about her years in the Navy was a new perspective for me. By the time Aaron enlisted, I was proud that he did so. The funny thing about that is that Linda’s Navy experience was in many ways pretty awful, at least as bad as my father’s Army experience. She and every other woman dealt constantly with sexual harassment, and she had a secret: she was a lesbian, and if anyone caught wind of that, she faced dishonorable discharge and jail. Eventually, she realized that her pay was terrible, she had very little future, and she’d be better off in civilian life – so she went to work for the U.S. Government in law enforcement, as an inspector in the U.S. Customs Service for 33 years. There she helped break up drug smuggling operations, seized endangered animals and birds that people were trying to traffic, and protected the patents of U.S. companies. (I bet you didn’t know they did all those things.)
Linda served both in the Navy and in Customs because there is a deep, genuine patriotism in her family. She usually insists that it’s about job security, but I can see through that smoke screen: in both cases she was in jobs where her orientation left her anything but secure. She believes in the United States of America, she understands that she is lucky to live here, and she insisted on giving honorable service to her country. Illness prevented our son from completing his term of enlistment, and he did not serve in wartime, but patriotism and a desire for service were the reasons he enlisted and fought hard to stay in the Navy as long as he could.
There are some other military folk on the edges of my life. One thing all of them share is that they may talk a great line about doing it “for the money” or for “security” but for most of them, patriotism is an important part of it, too. They want to serve, and to do so honorably. The words “service” and “honor” mean something very specific to them, something that cannot be bought cheaply with talk.
As near as I could tell, what my father hated about the Army was that for those years, he lost most of his freedom. He was at the call of the country, like it or not, and he didn’t like it one bit. That’s fair; not liking it is legitimate. He was drafted, after all; he didn’t sign up.
But thank heavens Linda’s Dad served aboard Navy ships, fighting Hitler and Tojo. Thank heavens he came home safely from Korea. Thank heavens Linda was willing to serve on a land-locked base in Nevada, working with the vets addicted to drugs and sick at heart, returning from Vietnam. Thank heavens for all the vets who served their country – who served you and me.
There’s a lot of talk flying around today from politicians and others (like me) about “gratitude” and “service.” Talk is cheap. “Thank you for your service” is cheap. It’s so cheap that perhaps we should shut up until we are willing to do more, willing to do something that corresponds to the service given.
What we were given was priceless – real years of real lives. Let’s push our elected officials to do more for the men and women who have served this country – to skip the cheap chat and instead, actually take care of those who have given years, and in too many cases, health and sanity to serving us. None should have to wait years for approval to see a doctor, or to get therapy. None should be without a safe home. None should be hungry. And yet far too many are.
This Veterans’ Day: let’s not be cheap.