Wednesday on this page we ran Mike Royko’s classic column about veterans.
Today, it’s my turn.
You see, one perk of being editor is I get to write this column, though this week it’s an honor since Saturday was Veterans Day. So here goes.
Veterans, I hope you were treated to all the free stuff you could handle. But you’re entitled to more than free meals and discounts at big box stores. That "blank check" you wrote when you joined up?
You deserve a "blank check" back, though it’s not likely to happen. At least you know what you did and what it means.
So, I hope, do the guys I served with in the late ’80s and early ’90s as an artillery surveyor in the 5th Battalion, 8th Field Artillery, Fort Bragg; the 3rd Battalion, 12th Field Artillery (Lance) — "First on Target" — in Aschaffenburg; and 1st Battalion, 32nd Field Artillery (Lance) in Hanau, "The Proud Americans," and, finally, the folks at the 24th Replacement Detachment I worked with after I got lucky to be assigned to that unit for my last months in the Army.
But the funny thing is, though I know now what a remarkable time being a soldier was, for years the best part of getting out of the Army was being a civilian again.
Just not having to stand in a formation every couple of hours was liberating. No blousing rubbers. No locker inspections. No trips to Graf or Wildflecken. No guard duty in the freezing cold. No duty rosters. No lariat advances at 3 a.m.
Me, a veteran? Nah. That’s those old guys holding down the bar stools at the American Legion or VFW. But as I age, that distance I kept from my own time in the Army is changing. Now, I want to reconnect with guys I knew and remember what were probably the best, worst and weirdest six years of my life.
So, I recently spent half a day with an old Army Lance missile crewman buddy of mine from Germany who lives in San Antonio.
It was like time went backwards — and I suppose you had to be there. But it turns out we are in a sense already dinosaurs in our 50s, because they don’t make Lance missiles anymore, and they don’t make 13 Novembers or 82 Charlies anymore either.
Thanks to my job, I meet a lot of veterans, too many to mention, though I admire many of them a great deal. I am lucky to consider a few my friends — B.J. Clark and Ernie Mitchell over in Pembroke, and Lori McCambell here in Hinesville, and Kate Barker at the Richmond Hill Library, and some others.
Yet because I don’t think I’ve ever done this before in print, I want to acknowledge the service of my wife’s father, the late Carl Butler. He served honorably and well in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War and is now buried with his wife Myra in the Glennville Veterans Memorial Cemetery. Carl’s time as a sailor was long ago, but I believe he remembered it fondly as the adventure of a lifetime. What’s more, my wife’s half brother, Mike Butler, served in the Marine Corps and her cousin, Michael Holloway from tiny Arabi, Ga., made the Marines a career and retired as high up in the Corps warrant officer ranks as you can, then went into banking. His brother, Dale Holloway, fought as an Army infantry man in Vietnam and still bears the scars.
I suspect both knocked back more than a few cold beers this weekend. I sure hope they did.
A brother-in-law, Glennville High School football legend Gary "Knot" Geiger, is retired Army National Guard, and was such a good shot I am told he was on a GARNG rifle team at one point.
You might know him, since Knot’s probably surveyed most of Liberty County and still swears that he saw Bigfoot while out working near James Brown Park some years back.
But mostly, when I think of military service, I think of my dad, Eugene Whitten, who retired from the Army as a master sergeant after 26 years because he twice turned down the sergeant major’s academy to take care of his family. The first time was when my youngest sister ran into some trouble. The second time was just before she was killed.
Dad, a fine writer, has one of the keenest senses of humor I know. He also always put family and soldiers first, always, and it is a testament to him that most folks I know thought he was a retired sergeant major. He is a great American and fine father, and a wonderful friend. Anything good I’ve become is due to him (and Mom, who has shared her journey with Dad for 57 years).
The faults, and there are many, are all my own. Finally, this, which I think is the most important thing non-veterans in this country ought to know about veterans is that they come in a lot of shapes and sizes and skin colors and they have different political and religious beliefs.
But one thing all veterans share is that DD 214 and the service that led to it.
To me, that’s better than a fancy PhD any day.