No matter how ill-advised our country’s wars may have been, we shouldn’t fail to honor those who served in them.
My father, who intercepted Russian communications for NSA during the Cold War. He continued to occasionally dream in Russian until the end of his life, more than 30 years after he left the service. The American Legion never allowed him to become a member, because they only accept “wartime veterans”, and the Cold War wasn’t considered a “real” war. But the VFW, on the other hand, played taps at my Dad’s funeral and presented my mother with a flag.
My father’s best friend, Wally, who served with him in NSA and later became a Lt. Colonel in the USAF before retiring. He was the only person with my father when he died.
My father’s other Air Force buddies, many of whom I have re-established contact with in recent years, thanks to the Internet.
My uncle Rob, who was decorated for a reconnaissance mission in Viet Nam in which he disobeyed an order not to make a second pass over his target, which was in a river gorge. He and his copilot thought they had seen something — but didn’t get a clear picture of it. Enemy gunners were waiting for his F-4 Phantom II’s return, and he had no weapons of his own (only a camera). But the enemy guns were mounted on the sides of the gorge and were unable to point level or downward, so he flew the Phantom through the gorge and under their line of fire. The pictures they acquired on the second pass proved valuable.
My mother’s cousin Jimmy, who was shot down over Viet Nam and became a POW at the Hanoi Hilton. For years, the government wouldn’t say whether he had been killed or was a prisoner — and they suppressed all communication from a member of his squadron who insisted that he had seen Jimmy alive on the ground. Once, my mother was certain she saw him on television hoeing a garden plot when news cameras were allowed into the prison. Once all prisoners were released, we finally got the good news. The POWs were flown to Clark Air Force base in the Philippines to be greeted by President Nixon, and they were instructed to deplane in order of seniority (how long they had been a prisoner), walk up to the President and salute him without showing any emotional expression. We watched it live on TV. Jimmy was the third one off the plane, having been a POW for more than seven years. He walked up to Nixon, saluted, and broke into a huge grin. The President grinned back. Later, Jimmy was interviewed on the Today Show by Barbara Walters.
My uncle Bill, who served in the Army in Germany during the Viet Nam era.
My wife’s uncle Rosario, who was a guard at an internment camp for Japanese Americans during World War II. He told me that even at the time he thought it was a great injustice, because here he was an Italian American and the U.S. was at war with Italy, yet he was not considered a threat — while innocent U.S. citizens of Japanese descent were placed in prison under his supervision.
My wife’s father, who served in the Air Force during World War II.
A friend of our family, Raymond. Mild mannered and always smiling, I knew him as an insurance salesman and a member of our church. He was the third man to cross over the Rhine in Patton’s army.
One of my auto parts customers, Pete. He landed with the 101st Airborne Division at Normandy, saw action in the Battle of the Bulge, and ended up somewhere in what is now the Czech Republic by the end of the war. He was never prouder than when his son also joined the 101st, and he was permanently crushed when that son died in Viet Nam.
Most every man in my hometown who was 35-50 years older than I served in World War II. We didn’t have any factories in our area, so we didn’t have any Rosies that I know of – but the women kept everything else running, mostly the farms.
My mother’s cousin Witcher, who died in a freak airplane accident during the invasion on D-Day, at the age of 18.
My mother’s father, who served in the Army during World War I.
My great grandfather Floyd (on my mother’s side), who served in the Spanish-American War.
My great grandfather “Pomp” (on my mother’s side), who served for the Confederacy. He went missing after a battle and was presumed dead — but he found his way back home and hailed the ferry across the Staunton River from the other side. The slaves who piloted the ferry thought it was his ghost, and wouldn’t cross the river to get him without some persuasion.
My great great grandfather Voltaire (on my father’s side), who served for the Confederacy and was nearly hit by a cannonball out of nowhere while he was eating his lunch by a fencepost. If either Voltaire or Pomp hadn’t escaped death in those instances, I wouldn’t be here today — both were young men at the time, and fathered my next ancestors much later.
My great great great great grandfather (on my mother’s side), who was Chief Wagonmaster for General George Washington during the Revolution.
I have not always been proud of our country’s conduct in the world — or within itself, in the case of the War Between the States. But I am thankful to those who risked, and sometimes lost, their lives in the service of their country. We should give the help they need to those who return.