Sunday, May 24, 2009

What Veterans Share

Saturday morning, I was moving on foot towards the Ladd and Whitney Monument to check out the Memorial Day ceremony when I bumped into Ted Lavash, who I knew to have been a Marine but didn't know when.

After convincing Ted to reverse his course back towards home from the Club Diner and towards the ceremony (it didn't take much arm-twisting), I got to asking him when he served with the Marine Corps.


As if he could see the wheels turning in my head to try to figure out what happened then, he broke into my thought before the gears started to grind.

"I was too late for Korea but too early for Vietnam. But I was on the beach in Lebanon in 1958. 10,000 of us came ashore, we stayed for a while and we held the airport."

Amazing. Here I was about to show up at the ceremony standing next to someone who was actually there in the eastern Med in 1958 as a participant in something that's been reduced to a footnote, or at best a paragraph in our history textbooks (President Eisenhower's effort to help stabilize the Maronite government).

Afterwards, as Ted met up with some Marine Corps League buddies and I hitched a ride to Memorial Auditorium from a Navy veteran, I kept thinking about the luck of the draw (and I use the term 'luck' unironically) that determines exactly where someone serves.

That was the topic #1 on the noggin when I saw Dick Howe (author of the eponymous blog conveniently linked to your right) in front of Memorial Auditorium. Knowing he was a) an Army veteran, and b) a high-order history buff, I knew he'd appreciate knowing that I was just talking to a guy who was part that whole 1958 Lebanon adventure.

I was comparing the here-and-now, where you can virtually assume that anyone in the ground services (and increasingly, all the services) has either already served in Iraq or Afghanistan, or is getting ready to do so, to previous eras. By comparison, I wouldn't assume that an active-duty soldier or marine had been in Desert Storm in 1991, and for the smaller wars, forget it. Even the chance that an active-duty Marine would've been on that beach with Ted in 1958 is somewhere between 10 and 20 percent.

Dick mentioned Grenada. He was on active duty in October 1983 (and wasn't there) but it never even would've occurred to me to ask. Operation URGENT FURY was a small-scale thing, involving mainly Special Operations Forces and some XVIII Airborne Corps folks who were sitting on the other end of the line for President Reagan's 911 call when the "go" order came while the marine barracks was still smoldering in Beirut.

Like so many who served during the Cold War, Lt. Howe cut his teeth in Germany, bracing for hell's fury to pass through the Fulda Gap before the "strategic" elements became involved and changed things irrevocably. This tour preceded orders to Devens, formerly a major league-sized element right in this-here backyard (Now who woulda thunkit -- a young man earns a commission, goes on a far-flung adventure, takes orders to get back to the area he left and set up the next phase of his life, then moves his commission over to the Guard -- sign me up for that one!).

Numbers and odds are important.

Joining the Army or Marines today brings with it a virtual guarantee of service in a combat zone and future eligibility for the VFW. I'm not sure if things have really been that way since World War II -- even during Vietnam, we had far more sizable overseas "presence" commitments, and we never used the Guard and Reserves in the same way, so entry into those groups almost meant the reverse of what it did today, as it came with protection from the Draft.

I consider myself very lucky to have joined the Navy in 2004 and still found my way into "the theater" by earning a spot attached to a unit that does that sort of thing for a living (and whose past involvement in places like Grenada and Panama makes them far-from-forgotten within that community). But even THAT had a lot to do with timing. Any earlier OCS start date would've meant a different, far less exciting time as an Ensign and a JG.

Those odds are a lot different than being a Vietnam-era F-4 pilot (as was the author of Right-Side-of-Lowell, also handily linked at the blogroll to your right), where operational demands were high, risks were great, and there weren't many billets you could be *stashed* at and hide the fact that you possessed that skill.

But it's that very level of uncertainty, and the very willingness to accept that uncertainty, that unites all past and present sailors, soldiers, airmen, marines, and coasties. No matter what your branch of service or your MOS, when you join the military you not only surrender your basic rights (remember, we protect democracy and liberty but we don't always practice it), but you surrender your ability to control your own fate.

People who believe that military service is "noble, but it's something for other people, or other people's kids" just don't get this, and never will. Someone who raises their right hand is essentially saying, "I'll be that person, civilian leadership do with me what you will."

Your Germany could be my Korea. Your Laos might be my Northwest Frontier Province. Your Camp Lemonier could be my Camp Fallujah. Your beach in West Beirut could be my Indonesian archipelago after another tsunami hits and the CA guys get tapped to make things right.

The fact is, we just don't know, and we'll live with uncertainty.

Bearing that uncertainty, asking our families to do the same, and pressing ahead in spite of it -- that will be our special bond.

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