It’s November (already). That makes me think of the same things I think of every November. Thanksgiving. Turkey. Pumpkin pie. And…what was that…oh, yeah. Veterans Day, November 11. I think about Veterans Day a lot these days. (By the way, the official spelling is without any apostrophe.)
Our US observance of Veterans Day traces back to 1919, a year after the end of World War I. As is undoubtedly a familiar story to the well-informed, President Wilson published a message to all Americans on November 11, 1919, the first anniversary of the “armistice” that marked the end of overt hostilities in what was then known as “The World War,” since there was at that time no need to number such events. The word “armistice” itself now seems oddly antique; its meaning is “an agreement among opposing sides to stop fighting at a certain time.” Wilson used his message to praise the efforts of Americans, in uniform or not, to bring that conflict to a successful end.
Congress acted in 1925 to advise the president to decree each November 11 as a day for “appropriate observance” each November 11, and in 1938, Congress again acted (they did things in those days) to designate the date formally as a federal holiday, “Armistice Day.” It was under this name that it crept into my consciousness when I was very young. As the oldest grandchild in the family, I spent a lot of time around my grandparents, and they were largely unmoved by Congress’ later official act (1954) to change the name to Veterans Day, and to ratify what had already become the function of the day: a tribute to veterans of military service. It shifted to a “Monday holiday” observance during the 1970’s, but changed back to its original date in 1978.
As a nation, we mark Memorial Day (once known as “Decoration Day,” because it was to be a date to decorate the gravesites of those who had given their lives in wartime military service) and Veterans Day. The former is designated for those who “gave their lives” for the nation during war; the latter is a tribute to all veterans.
I am a veteran of the Vietnam era, but did not see any action in that generation-mauling conflict. With my background in a medical support role (radiologic technologist), I was assigned in 1969 to a Navy hospital, where I saw thousands of young Marines (especially, but not exclusively) who had been sent Stateside for treatment of wounds they had received in the war. In some ways both they and I were the “lucky ones.” They had been brushed by death, but come away partially intact. With luck, many would return to girlfriends or wives and careers put on hold in places not named Da Nang or Hue. I moved through the length of my enlistment contract, first at that Navy hospital, and when time was up on that assignment, poised for the inevitable (or so I thought) reassignment to a Marine unit as their medical support. As it happened, when I was due for transfer, President Nixon announced a freeze in assignments for the next six months because of budget overruns. At the end of that six-month period, those with less than one year left in service were again frozen until release from active duty. Bingo! I was covered, and thus served out my time without any actual combat experience. (You can see why I never brag of my “military exploits.” Nobody cares about a crack X-ray tech in uniform.)
Some 45 years after I took off the uniform and returned to college under the “GI Bill,” I still carry with me one of the most vivid examples of a tragic death I have ever known of. He was a Lance Corporal (the Marines had Privates E-1 and E-2, then Lance Corporals, so he was near the bottom of the rank structure) and he was 19 or 20 years old (Weren’t they all?). He had been serving in Viet Nam, and while on a patrol, someone near him stepped on a land mine, which exploded near Lance Corporal Whoever. It did not kill him, but he was wounded by shrapnel, a common thing during the Viet Nam conflict. In this case, the shrapnel tore through his right lower jaw, leaving many small fragments behind, and simultaneously ripping away a large part of his jawbone. After initial casualty treatment onsite and at a field hospital, he was evacuated for further treatment in better facilities in the US.
Thus it was I came to know the Lance Corporal. His status was basically in limbo for almost a year. The fragments in his jaw were slowly being rejected by his body, and bits and pieces came out over the period; he was placed on light duty, which in his case meant carrying envelopes of interoffice mail all over the sprawling hospital grounds, often between buildings. He was a familiar sight, trudging between stops, one hand holding envelopes filled with the minutiae of administration, and the other holding a wad of gauze padding to the still-open wound where his jaw used to be; the gauze caught drops of blood or any other stray fluids that issued therefrom. He had been told that when healing had advanced far enough, and shrapnel fragments no longer posed a problem, he would undergo surgery to mold a new jawbone of plastic into place to replace his old one.
At last, the surgeons told him he could undergo the surgery that would begin the process of making him whole again. We all wished him the best as the day approached, and he brightened in spirit as he anticipated the event. On the day of his surgery, we did not see him with the interoffice mail. Many of us on the hospital staff wondered how the surgery would go, but we all knew each other; we would hear from an OR tech when the surgery was over, and looked forward to just that.
It didn’t happen. The Lance Corporal went to surgery amidst many tasteless jokes about how he would become a lady-killer with his new prosthetic jaw. He was placed on an operating table where he received the standard anesthesia, and promptly went into anaphylactic shock. And died. At 20 or 21 years of age. For us, all of us who knew him, we had seen plenty of death. We were a little bit immune to it by then. He probably had seen death, too, those thousands of miles away, but for him, this time, it was personal. And final. And tragic. For me and others, merely troubling.
A few years later, the military draft was abolished. I watched the announcement and the “draft lottery” that decided who might be called in the draft’s last days.
So there you have it. Why I always feel like Memorial Day is 100% for guys like that Lance Corporal, and Veterans Day is 1% for guys like me, who served, maybe with enthusiasm and maybe without, but did serve–and still walk the earth and get to know children and grandchildren–and 99% also for guys like the Lance Corporal, who just had lousy luck, and did not get those pleasures. Remember him and all the others like him on November 11.
I will ignore politicians who say “Thank you for your service” and who claim to be very concerned with the welfare of veterans. To those politicians who rail that not standing for the national anthem is disrespect for veterans or that they have done this or that for the veterans, I simply want you to zip it. Just shut up. I did not suffer the taunts and curses that many other vets did when they returned to “the real world” after service during Viet Nam, and for that I am glad. As for today’s veterans, I wonder–do they enjoy the grandstanding by politicians toward them, the empty words? Or maybe, I wonder, do they just feel as if the so-called leaders of the country would honor them more by not deciding to send another generation of young men (and now women, as well) off to the other side of the world with guns to fight the conflicts older men start with words?