“In keeping silent about evil, in burying it so deep within us that no sign of it appears on the surface, we are implanting it, and it will rise up a thousand fold in the future. When we neither punish nor reproach evildoers, we are not simply protecting their trivial old age, we are thereby ripping the foundations of justice from beneath new generations.”
― Aleksandr SolzhenitsynThank you fallen brothers, for your sacrifice.
My sister recently sent me a link to a New York Times article entitled, Please Don’t Thank Me for My Service, (link) written by Matt Richtel, published on February 21, 2015. She asked me what I thought of it.
Like a bad heat rash on a hot summer day, it irritated me. As I read, I found myself agreeing that the “thank you for your service phenomenon” is real, but the attitudes and conclusions drawn by the veterans interviewed for this article seemed prickly and malformed; lacking in common grace. Their comments made me suspect that on some level they are still wrestling with their war demons and have not fully resolved the conflict in the belly of their souls. They, by no means, speak for the rest of us.
It was 1977 when someone first thanked me for my service in Vietnam. Seven years after I was discharged. It must have been significant in some way because I still remember where I was (working in Prudhoe Bay on the Alaskan pipeline) and how awkward it was to have a stranger walk right up to me and thank me for my service. Unexpectedly, I felt a release or relief of sorts because it broke the strange, long silence that had existed between me and ‘them’ (‘them’ meaning everyone else) about the Vietnam war. It was the beginning of a bridge that helped me begin to reintegrate more fully into civilian life. I was speechless then, and still am now when people thank me. I am especially uncomfortable when a speaker asks all the veterans to stand up and be recognized on Veteran’s Day. I only comply because of my wife’s insistent prodding that I stand, with repeated nudges against my leg.
It may be uncomfortable to be thanked for our service, but not because people are insincere or shallow, or trying to somehow assuage their own sense of civilian guilt as the author suggests. I’m pretty sure it’s our problem, not theirs. I would suggest that it’s perfectly natural to thank someone for serving their country, especially during a time of war and conflict. When you think about it, for someone not to acknowledge the Veteran’s service could be considered thoughtless. But not according to Freedman.
“They have no skin in the game with these wars. There’s no draft.” No real opinions either, he said. “At least with Vietnam, people spit on you and you knew they had an opinion.” “Thank you for your service,” he said, is almost the equivalent of “I haven’t thought about any of this.”
Similarly, Garth is offended when thanked.
…Mr. Garth, 26, said that when he gets thanked it can feel self-serving for the thankers, suggesting that he did it for them, and that they somehow understand the sacrifice, night terrors, feelings of loss and bewilderment. Or don’t think about it at all.
“I pulled the trigger,” he said. “You didn’t. Don’t take that away from me.”
In response, I would ask two simple questions; if not for them then for whom did he serve, and how does not understanding (fully) the effects of war disqualify the appreciation? The passengers on Flight 1549 didn’t know how it felt for the pilot to fly an Airbus A320 into the Hudson, but that didn’t disqualify them from expressing their heartfelt gratitude toward Captain Scully for saving their lives. Their thanks were appropriate, real and sincere. And how odd it would be for Captain Scully to seethe with resentment because they had no idea what he had to endure while trying to protect them?
Furthermore, how can a civilian know the horrors of war without experiencing it first hand? The whole point of the soldier going to war is so that others don’t have to. To respond by saying “I pulled the trigger, you didn’t” might seem at first glance a profound statement but upon further inspection seems suspiciously resentful, as though Mr. Garth is carrying a chip on his shoulder. A chip that evidenced by the rest of his sentence, “don’t take that away from me”.
To borrow a line from Jack Nicholson in the movie, A Few Good Men, “We live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? You?…You…? I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom.”
We stood on the wall for our nation because they needed us there. Most everyone gets that on some level. And when they get it, what naturally comes next is simply, “Thank you.” To equate the sentiment “Thank you for your service” with “I haven’t thought about any of this” is quite a leap on Mr. Freedman’s part.
I love Tim O’Brian’s writing. His book, The Things They Carried is one of the best. He is the unofficial poet laureate of war. But I think he might be getting a little intoxicated with his own philosophy when he states that the appreciative are thanking him “without having the courage to ask whether the mission was even right.”
Can we appreciate the firefighters and police who stand on the wall daily within our cities without first having to define the motivations for our gratitude through the excruciating strainer of complete self-examination, or test our courage by asking if their “mission is even right?” And wouldn’t it be a strange response indeed for a firefighter or policeman to react with resentment and suspicion toward the thankful?
Those who are simply expressing heartfelt thanks should not be psychoanalyzed or their motives impugned, or assumptions made about their thoughts or courage. Let gratitude stand alone and be humbly received.
It’s true that I still fumble about…not knowing what to say when someone thanks me for my service. Partly because I experience what Tim O’Brien so eloquently described, “something in the stomach tumbles” from the expressions of appreciation that seem so disconnected from the “evil, nasty stuff you do in war”, and partly because it was simply my job. It seems odd to be thanked for doing your job, which after all is just what you are expected to do when you sign up for the armed forces. Like Captain Scully, we were just doing our job as best we could and for the record I don’t consider us heroes. I reserve that distinction for those who didn’t make it home in one piece.
To Mr. Garth, Mr. Freedman and Mr. O’Brian I say, “Thank you for your service.”
Photo Credit: Horst Faas
Link to Please Don’t Thank Me For My Service below:
I stare out the window of the bus as it turns the corner into Fort Benning, Georgia. We roll past a large plywood sign with hand-painted letters, Home of the Screaming Eagles, 101st Airborne Brigade. I crane my neck to get a good look at three metal structures two-hundred-fifty feet high, standing cold and rigid on the flat barren field. I wipe at the condensation from the window for a better look, but only smear the water around on the glass, blurring my view entirely. The bus pulls to a stop and we unload our gear. I notice a sergeant standing nearby wearing starched fatigues and a black baseball cap with the word TRAINER in bold yellow letters. He stands motionless, watching us with his arms crossed over his chest. He is built like a fire hydrant, low to the ground and immovable. An assistant trainer joins him and he begins his briefing.
“Men!” he begins in a loud voice, “As you can see by the piece of paper in your hands, you only have three weeks with us. When these weeks are through, you will be in the best physical condition of your lives and you will have earned your wings by completing five successful jumps from a C119 airplane…or you will have washed out. Playtime is over. In Airborne, we don’t give anybody anything. You are going to have to earn your jump boots. In Basic and AIT you could screw up a few times and get away with it. Here, you don’t have the privilege of making mistakes. One misstep and you will be bug juice on the proverbial windshield! Is that understood?” A ripple of easy laughter and low murmurs pass through the formation, but the hard-nosed little sergeant doesn’t crack a smile. He waits for the appropriate response.
He continues, “During this first week, we will focus on physical fitness and conditioning. The second week you’ll learn about parachutes and rigging. At the end of that week you will jump out of thirty-five foot towers so you can get accustomed to parachute harnesses and learn how to land and roll, a maneuver which will hereafter be referred to as a PLF. The third week you will begin by dropping from the two-hundred and fifty foot towers behind you, with the aid of a parachute. Unless you make me angry, in which case you will lose the privilege of the chute.”
There is something about forbidden laughter in the face of authority that tempts a fool. The more the dunderhead resists, the harder it becomes. The trainer’s remark elicits a snicker from the center of the formation. The sergeant waits; his silence extinguishes the laughter faster than a brass candlesnuffer at the close of a liturgical mass. His face hardens and his brow flexes into an angry glare. “Now listen and listen good,” he seethes, “for the next twenty-one days I’m gonna be pushin’ you harder than you’ve ever been pushed in your life and you better be paying attention and not miss a lick because in three weeks you’ll be falling from an altitude of 1500 feet, dropping like a rock at a sustained airspeed of a hundred miles an hour—and you sure as hell need to know what you are doing! One lapse of concentration and you die.” The rigid little sergeant has a way of focusing our attention. “Let’s get something straight from the get-go,” he orders, “As of this minute, I am the lawnmower and your ass is the grass! Any questions?“
“No Sergeant!” Read More
It is the summer of 1968. Port Tuley and I sit in the cab of my 1941 Ford pickup, waiting for the stoplight to change. We’ve just polished off a large sausage and onion at Jenny’s Pizzeria and are eager to join the other hot cars in the Friday night cruise up 16th Street. I rev the engine a couple of times. Torque from the 322 cubic-inch Buick engine reverberates through the truck, rocking it from side to side. The dual exhaust pipes crackle, but the light refuses to change.
“See any cops?” I ask, eyes scanning up and down the side streets.
“Nope. Gun it!” Port answers, reading my mind. I dump the clutch, and the baby-blue pickup roars through the intersection, smoke pouring from the rear wheel wells. I hit second gear and notice two red lights vibrating in the rear view mirror; one is dangling over the intersection and the other is gaining on us. The cop car is a quarter mile back and closing fast, which leaves us with only one course of action—outrun him. We race down 32nd Avenue and Port shouts, “Go for the church!”
Four blocks from the intersection stands the venerable white steeple of Truett Memorial Baptist Church. Like a sentinel pointing sharply toward the heavens, it’s a beacon to lost sinners, calling them home with quiet assurance. I’ve been there before.
In sixth-grade, Port talked me into joining the Royal Ambassadors. Even though it was all fun and games, I suspect they were trying to keep us from becoming juvenile delinquents. We met at the church on Wednesday nights and after eating bagfuls of salty chips and gulping gallons of juice like drunken sailors—we played bombardment. Crowding into a windowless room, we picked two teams of ten combatants. When our leaders George and Roy hollered, “Incoming!” the room erupted with screaming and yelling, and the air exploded with with a barrage of volleyballs, and a half dozen medicine balls thrown in for good measure. We happily beat each other to smithereens until no man was left standing and the game was called. George then gathered us into a large circle. Sweaty, dazed and bleeding, nursing fat lips and monster headaches, we stood side-by-side while Roy told us a Bible story. Then we prayed. They told us we could always turn to God in times of trouble. This Friday night is such a time. Read More
Standing on the very spot on the northern coast of France where Allied soldiers had stormed ashore to liberate Europe from the yoke of Nazi tyranny, President Ronald Reagan spoke these words to an audience of D-Day veterans and world leaders. They were gathered at the site of the U.S. Ranger Monument at Pointe du Hoc. Following this speech, the President unveiled memorial plaques to the 2nd and 5th U.S. Army Ranger Battalions. The President and Mrs. Reagan then greeted each of the veterans. Other Allied countries represented at the ceremony by their heads of state and government were: Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, Queen Beatrix of The Netherlands, King Olav V of Norway, King Baudouin I of Belgium, Grand Duke Jean of Luxembourg, and Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau of Canada. ￼
We’re here to mark that day in history when the Allied armies joined in battle to reclaim this continent to liberty. For 4 long years, much of Europe had been under a terrible shadow. Free nations had fallen, Jews cried out in the camps, millions cried out for liberation. Europe was enslaved, and the world prayed for its rescue. Here in Normandy the rescue began. Here the Allies stood and fought against tyranny in a giant undertaking unparalleled in human history.
We stand on a lonely, windswept point on the northern shore of France. The air is soft, but 40 years ago at this moment, the air was dense with smoke and the cries of men, and the air was filled with the crack of rifle fire and the roar of cannon. At dawn, on the morning of the 6th of June, 1944, 225 Rangers jumped off the British landing craft and ran to the bottom of these cliffs. Their mission was one of the most difficult and daring of the invasion: to climb these sheer and desolate cliffs and take out the enemy guns. The Allies had been told that some of the mightiest of these guns were here and they would be trained on the beaches to stop the Allied advance.
The Rangers looked up and saw the enemy soldiers — at the edge of the cliffs shooting down at them with machine guns and throwing grenades. And the American Rangers began to climb. They shot rope ladders over the face of these cliffs and began to pull themselves up. When one Ranger fell, another would take his place. When one rope was cut, a Ranger would grab another and begin his climb again. They climbed, shot back, and held their footing. Soon, one by one, the Rangers pulled themselves over the top, and in seizing the firm land at the top of these cliffs, they began to seize back the continent of Europe. Two hundred and twenty-five came here. After 2 days of fighting, only 90 could still bear arms.
Behind me is a memorial that symbolizes the Ranger daggers that were thrust into the top of these cliffs. And before me are the men who put them there. These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc. These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. These are the heroes who helped end a war.
Gentlemen, I look at you and I think of the words of Stephen Spender’s poem. You are men who in your “lives fought for life . . . and left the vivid air signed with your honor.”
I think I know what you may be thinking right now—thinking, We were just part of a bigger effort; everyone was brave that day. Well, everyone was. Do you remember the story of Bill Millin of the 51st Highlanders? Forty years ago today, British troops were pinned down near a bridge, waiting desperately for help. Suddenly, they heard the sound of bagpipes, and some thought they were dreaming. Well, they weren’t. They looked up and saw Bill Millin with his bagpipes, leading the reinforcements and ignoring the smack of the bullets into the ground around him. Read More
The wise Marilyn Monroe once said, “This life is what you make it. No matter what, you’re going to mess up sometimes, it’s a universal truth. But the good part is you get to decide how you’re going to mess it up.”
Truthfully, I didn’t exactly decide how I was going to mess up the last post, at least not universally. And I wouldn’t necessarily call it good, but I will confess that a slight mess up may have occurred. But…since I get to decide…I’ve decided…it’s really the fault of WordPress, not me. Yes, that’s it. No matter what, I’ve decided (post mess up) that’s how the mess-it-up happened.
You see, WordPress has these extraordinarily large buttons with huge letters that say PUBLISH, and sometimes you just mess up and push the button before it is time, and poof, before you know it, the whole world (that is, universe) receives several, no, maybe two or three or four consecutive email notices. Messy.
So there you go. Think about that. Then go decide how you’re going to mess up the next time. This life is what you make it. That’s the good part.
Humbly Yours, Bart
Photo Credits: Loomis Dean—Time Life Pictures
Jimmy D Gray and I have been trying to find each other for over forty years. One day while surfing the Internet, he sees a random post on an obscure website, “Looking for Jimmy D Gray, November Company, 75th Rangers, LZ English. Call me brother.” He immediately answers, but by then I’ve moved on. Eventually, I circle back to the website and check my old post. I am stunned to see his reply that places us within five years of each other.
I finally have his email address. Then his phone number. The first late night phone call follows and ends with a promise to get together face-to-face at the first opportunity. We’re a year apart.
A business trip to California gives me reason to make another call and suddenly, we’re five hours apart. We settle on somewhere in the middle, the little town of Santa Clarita as our meeting place, at the local El Torito Mexican Restaurant.
In the parking lot, we walk exuberantly toward each other and embrace—a long backslapping hug before walking into the restaurant. I can’t believe I’m sitting across from him—looking into the eyes of Jimmy D Gray. He shouldn’t be here. He should have died exactly forty-five years ago. Instead, he’s sitting across the table from me in a booth with old naugahyde seats, faux Mexican wall tile and a bowl of crummy salsa on the table between us. He is smiling. A lot of life has passed between us. We don’t know each other now, so we start with what we do know. We know we are brothers, our kinship forged in the fires of war.
In 1969, we were both teenagers—he was from California and I was from Colorado. We met at Fort Gordon, Georgia and went through advanced infantry training together. After AIT we graduated from jump school at Fort Benning, earning our Airborne wings. We arrived in Vietnam and volunteered for the November Rangers at LZ English, which became our home firebase. We ran long range reconnaissance missions—we were called LRRPs for short. Jimmy D goes to Bravo team and I’m assigned to Charlie team, but we have each other’s backs. Every time we come in from a mission for a day to rest, resupply and reload, we check on each other’s well being. Just as I was doing that day it all came down for Jimmy D. Read More