I just spent the past eight days with a group of 300 or so of my closest friends, my fellow vets. We were Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines -- and there were even a few Coasties in there, as well. Some of us were first-termers-and-out, others gave a few more years, and a good many of us went for the whole Monty and stayed 20-30 or so years. Now, to be clear, I don't know all these folks intimately but in a sense we have intimate knowledge of one another.
We've been there, where-ever there was and were ready to do whatever our leaders required of us. Sometimes our leadership was in synch all the way up the chain of command, and sometimes it wasn't. The American Civil War, whose sesquicentennial we commemorate this year, was such a time when there was schism in our national leadership, and I can only imagine the horrendous torment of facing your former comrade and classmate across the battlefield.
I served from the end of the Viet Nam War through the Cold War and Desert Storm. I served on Okinawa and in the Republic of Korea and in one of the most beautiful little towns in the country, San Angelo, TX. My son served in a forward support position, but behind the lines of battle, during the Iraqi containment and the invasion of Iraq, and has since put boots on the ground in a DoD supportive role. My niece serves still and has only returned to the mainland from her first overseas assignment. She was on Okinawa for twelve years, excepting some time in training and in the air over hostile territories. My father and my uncles served. My great uncles served. We are Army, Navy, and Air Force (with Air Force leading the pack, by the way). We invested in this country with our lives, and we expect that the promises made to us when we took the oath of enlistment will be kept.
And that's what I meant when I said that I spent the past eight days with 300 of my closest friends. We know that we and our families are at risk. We know this especially because of who we are. We are the County Veterans Service Officers all across the country, and we see the crippled veteran.There are sooo many ways to be crippled -- and these wars we have been involved in have been especially crippling. Our VietNam vets are coming down with diseases tied to Agent Orange (aggressive cancers, Parkinson's Disease, diabetes, and more). If they were there, they were exposed. Our current crop of returning vets have suffered injuries on an astronomical scale. Devastating brain injuries, loss of limb, losses that you cannot imagine. Not to mention the crippling nature of poverty. We also see his widow (or her widower) and his or her orphan. And while the cost of living has increased in the last several years (gas and groceries), recognition of that in VA income tests hasn't changed. So a WWII widow grossing $13,000 a year in Social Security, before taxes and medicare premiums of about $7000, is considered to be too affluent for VA widow's pension. How would you like to pay your rent, utilities, and groceries for a year on $6000. Maybe you'd like cable TV to keep you company since you can't get around much anymore? Or maybe you'd like to travel to see your grandkids? Did I mention that poverty is crippling?
We see the veteran and his widow and orphan, and we see the dangers in this economy. We were at risk on the battlefield and we are at risk at home. I thought we were better than that.
When I sat down to write this piece, I was contemplating the origin of the salute that is shared between comrades in arms. I won't go into the arcane rules the modern day soldier follows. The origin, though somewhat romantic, was very functional. It began in the days when knights, and those rich enough to afford their own army, wore protective helmets with visors. When they would meet one another on the road, if they were not hostile they would lift the visor and make eye contact and exchange a greeting. Perhaps, "Good morning, good sir." To not return the salute would be an insult at best and a hostile act at the worst. These little bands would come to know one another, and when an outside force attempted hostilities, they would band together. Over time, they established protocols so they could tell their side from the hostiles, and the salute evolved as one of those protocols.
The salute has a long and honored history as a recognition of the respect we have for each other. That is why I hope you will join me in a salute to my fellow vets, and to his widow and orphan. Don't let them be forgotten.