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.