Thursday, November 12, 2009

Lunch with the Heroes

I was a peacetime soldier drafted into the U.S. Army in 1958.

The Ike we liked so much as president had concluded a truce in 1953 to end the Korean War, an undeclared war officially called a “conflict” at the time. Marines were laying their lives on the line in Lebanon, and troop trains pulled into sidings where I was in basic training, but the crisis blew over and officially we were never at war in the Middle East.

A few months later, we had several thousand “advisors” in Southeast Asia, and were training hundreds of Vietnamese artillery and missile men at Fort Sill where I was stationed, but officially we weren’t at war in Vietnam. Only the Cold War was in full flower when Uncle Sam plucked two years out of my young life.

When I and several million others completed our active duty assignments we became second-class veterans. Our country gave us most of the benefits first provided in the G.I. Bill after World War II, but in some cases our benefits were reduced. For example, men and women who served during official wartime years got ten point preferences for federal employment. We got five points.

Private groups also treated us with less than full respect. Many of the first-class veterans signed up in the American Legion to enjoy social life with buddies and push veteran’s causes. To this day, we second-class vets are not eligible to join the organization.

My feelings about having served in the “doughnut hole” of recent American military history were ambivalent. After all, chances of an enemy shooting at me were pretty low. However, they were pretty low for most of those who served in the Navy and Air Force in many wartime situations, and nearly nonexistent for the wiser young men in the late 1950s who signed up in the National Guard or reserve units, avoiding all but brief active duty stints.

It also occurred to me that those of us dumb enough to be drafted in peacetime probably shouldn’t rank right up there with wartime volunteers when applying for veteran’s benefits. I opted out of the Air Force ROTC program after two years. That wasn’t smart. Mostly, however, I didn’t worry about my missed opportunities or veteran status.

Although some of our institutions have not changed their rules, it seems that many Americans in recent years have decided all veterans are first-class. For a long time at patriotic moments during public events it was customary to give a round of applause for vets who served during our various wars. This summer, Sandy and I attended two concerts where the emcees made it clear that ALL veterans should rise and be recognized. It was a thrill to stand with heroes, even though I hardly qualify as one of those.

Yesterday we had lunch with a lot of heroes. On Veterans Day, Applebee’s restaurant gave a free meal to everyone who could prove military service, and not a whole lot of formal proof was required. The place was packed. And it was packed with pride. When a waiter asked one patron dining alone if he was a vet, the man pulled out a map to show where he served on an island in the Pacific. A much older man, who apparently didn’t expect to be asked, had brought nothing to prove he served in the World War II era. The waiter said, “Oh, never mind. It’s OK; your meal is on us.”

Thanks, Applebee’s, for honoring our heroes in a tangible way, and for promoting me to veteran first class, if only for a day.


Alan G said...

Dick, this is a great piece and I enjoyed your commentary. It’s a subject matter to which I can easily relate and admittedly anguished over for many years. I can certainly empathize with what you have said in your post. Although my military service in the Air Force was from Aug of 1961 thru Nov of 1968 and even though my dates served allowed my access to the organizations that denied you access, I have to say it does not seem right in the least that you were denied, especially in the case of the American Legion. For many years, partly due to my own ignorance on the matter, I pondered the definition of my own military service and in particular with regard to my professed status as a Vietnam Veteran.

Then some time back here in Arkansas, the State Legislature passed a provision that allowed all veterans from various wars to purchase their vehicle license plates for $1 dollar (one vehicle per household). One just needs to take their DD Form 214 to a local DMV office for verification. This was followed up recently when a Vietnam Veteran who had not been “in country” had a “Letter to the Editor” published in the local newspaper stating his opinions regarding the license plate and that he thought “only” those veterans who had been “in country” should be allowed to have the discounted plates. I’m still at a bit of a loss as to why someone who had not served “in-country” was taking up this cause in behalf of those veterans who had served “in-country”.

I actually found myself quite put-off by his letter. Whether you were drafted or volunteered is of no consequence in my opinion. If you served in the Armed Forces you were fulfilling a duty to your country and that’s the bottom line. I certainly understand the difference between peace time duty and that which puts one in harm’s way. I have encountered numerous debates in the past as to who is or isn’t a Vietnam Vet and the answer is pretty well defined as I eventually found out. Bottom line is this with regard to Vietnam Veterans.

You are defined as a “Vietnam Era Veteran” if you served in the Armed Forces between August 5th of 1964 and May 7th of 1975.

You are defined as a “Vietnam Veteran” if you were awarded the Vietnam Service Medal (VSM). The requirements for being awarded that medal are as follows:

“The Vietnam Service Medal was awarded to members of the Armed Forces of the United States who served at any time between July 4, 1965, and March 28, 1973, in Vietnam or its contiguous waters or airspace; or, for any period of service during the same time period in Thailand, Laos, or Cambodia or the air spaces there over and in direct support of operations in Vietnam.”

When you and I joined the Armed Forces there were no discussions or definitions that defined various parameters regarding our service. We were serving our country and with that service we were promised access to certain entitlements granted us by that service. As it turns out, it wasn’t quite that simple and just like in your case, it’s almost as if you hadn’t served at all.

As you mentioned, I think the public at large will always acknowledge and treat you as a veteran. The division lines and hierarchy are nurtured from within the Armed Forces themselves and not the civilian public.

Dick Klade said...

Thanks for the interesting comments. Even the legal definitions have some problems. In 1960 at Fort Sill a general conducted my information classes for a week (total audience about 800). He talked about what a great job the thousands of men he commanded ("advisors") had done in Laos. I had a map made for his use with a projector that showed Southeast Asia. I didn't get this story second-hand; I was there for every one of his talks.

The Arkansas license plate recognition is a great idea. Wonder if any other states have adopted that? Perhaps with the current budget crunches, new benefits are on backburners.

joared said...

I always heard the Korean "war" was called a "Police Action." Ridiculous! Am disappointed and angry to hear the American Legion doesn't recognize you veterans even today.

Seems to me anyone who serves our country in the military is a veteran. I become really disgusted with these word "games" officials play.