11 November 2012


On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, an armistice, or temporary cessation of hostilities, was declared between the Allied nations and Germany in the First World War, then known as "the Great War".  Commemorated as Armistice Day beginning the following year, November 11th became a legal federal holiday in the United States in 1938.  In the aftermath of World War II and the Korean War, Armistice Day became Veterans Day, a holiday dedicated to American veterans of all wars.

Veterans Day coincides with Remembrance Day in British Commonwealth nations.  Remembrance Day's intent is similar to America's Memorial Day in the month of May ~ to pay tribute to those who have died in military service.  Both Remembrance Day and Memorial Day are commemorated by the wearing of red remembrance poppies (see image above).  The use of the poppy was inspired by the World War I poem In Flanders Fields, whose opening lines refer to the many poppies that were the first flowers to grow in the churned-up earth of soldiers' graves in Flanders, an area that overlaps parts of France and Belgium.

Veterans Day is distinguished from Memorial Day in that it honors all those who, past and present, have served in the military, whether or not they died in the line of duty.

I am a veteran of the Vietnam War.  I served in country from March 1968 to March 1969.  My Army base camp was located at one apex of the Iron Triangle.  As a highly trained radioteletype operator with a Secret security clearance and access to sensitive cryptographic equipment, I spent part of my tour in base camp, and part in the field, attached to a mobile artillery battery of 155mm self-propelled howitzers.  I spent time at fire support bases (FSBs) in the Mekong Delta, Cholon (the Chinese suburb of Saigon), Cu Chi, Tay Ninh, and near the Parrot's Beak of neighboring Cambodia.

Time at base camp was safer (relatively).  The military base at Phu Loi included several military units and an airfield, and was surrounded by a perimeter defense of armed bunkers, trip flares, mines, and barbed wire.  Nevertheless, we experienced rocket and mortar attacks there.

Time in the field was much more dangerous.  Fire support bases were essentially populated by our artillery battery, and if we were lucky an infantry detachment.  Perimeter defense was rudimentary ~ ranging from fortified foxholes to nothing at all.  In the field, whether dug in at an FSB or in convoy to our next assigned location, we were the targets of rockets, mortars, and probes by enemy infantry.  As a communications operator, I had a bounty on my head and thus was a favored target for snipers as well.  Thankfully I was never hit.

I returned home physically unscathed, but psychologically unbalanced by the PTSD which afflicts nearly all combat veterans.  My symptoms were not at debilitating as they were for many, but they were (and remain) bad enough.  Being around anyone, even a police officer, carrying a firearm puts me on edge.  Sudden loud noises cause my heart to stop.  I have to insulate myself from the sights and sounds of 4th of July celebrations ~ they bring back too many memories.

Yet I am highly functional, for which I am grateful.  I'm also grateful to all those men and women with whom I share the language of the military experience ~ my fellow veterans.  Each of us has a story to tell, though we often are only comfortable sharing it with other veterans.  If you haven't been there, you don't speak the language, you don't comprehend the same set of experiences.  I don't say that in a condescending manner.  It is simple truth.  I truly wish that more people did grasp how the military changes you ~ it trains you (sometimes brutally), it places you in fight-or-flight situations, it expects you to take human life.  You may be exposed to gruesome scenes out of unimaginable nightmares, moments which etch themselves permanently into your psyche.

And it also introduces you to cultural diversity, the common bond of sharing the risk of death, and a journey in which you discover reservoirs of resilience and strength you never knew you possessed.  The bond spans generations, and is shared by former adversaries.  Just as I weep whenever I visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, so would I weep if I could visit the Normandy cemeteries near the D-Day landing beaches, or a memorial to the Vietnamese soldiers who once wished my death.

John McCutcheon's ballad "Christmas in the Trenches" (based on a real event during World War I) sums it up ~ on each end of the rifle, we're the same.

No comments:

Post a Comment