My truth be told, from age nineteen on, I’ve never missed the observance of Veterans Day, nor inwardly enjoyed my pride over being one. It’s a big and special club. I became a member way back in my nineteenth year. What can you say about the inner workings of a nineteen-year-old boy… who was about to become a man?
Although it may have taken awhile for me, today I clearly understand. Becoming a man was what my newly joined club was all about. It was known as the United States Army.
Many today speak of patriotism and heroism, and just about every kind of “ism” known to man. However, most who speak the words have little to reflect upon. When I became an official club member, without knowing it, I was taking my first steps towards walking the walk. It’s a very private thing, requiring many years of cultivating. Today, admittedly my pride in having served this country of ours is a vital part of who I am.
Yes I was in the army, and yes I am proud to say I’m a veteran. As I write and reflect, capsules of my transition to manhood’s beginning moments return with an immediacy, which only the purest of truths could stimulate.
In the beginning we were referred to as recruits. And God were we an ugly-looking bunch of guys. The military set out on a goal of having us all look and act the same. Mainly it was the shaved heads, which was the most distressing. Except for the boots, none of us had anything that fit well. We were one hundred and twenty bedraggled what-is-its. Cold, wet, sick, and on the verge of hallucination due to sleep deprivation, another unpleasant ingredient was added to the mix: they began yelling at us. When I asked why I was being yelled (make that screamed) at, the man doing the screaming looked at me with more disdain than I could ever direct an actor to do, and without skipping a beat moved directly in front of me, his nose literally touching mine and shouted, “Give me ten!” I had no idea what in the name of hell he wanted; certainly I didn’t have that much money on my person. “Are you a deaf, ‘cruit?” (short for recruit) he bellowed. I began to respond to him about my excellent hearing, when without warning he demanded, “Make that twenty.” Fortunately for me, one of my buddies in the back yelled out, “He wants push-ups.” I complied. That was my erstwhile entrance to the infantry / combat engineers basic training indoctrination.
NOTE: I lived.
After four weeks we were a different group of guys. Our physical condition was superb. We were learning the real meaning of teamwork as taught by the military. As they repeated over and over again, “There is a right way, a wrong way, and the army way.”
Fort Lewis, Washington; it was a typical February day, chilly and wet. Our company of men had completed the first few weeks of basic training and had been assembled, along with four other companies, as part of our first battalion size (about twenty five hundred) parade. There we were, a group of mostly southern California guys; cold, wet, and experiencing being more miserable than any of us could have imagined. Without exception, all of us had colds.
Nothing mattered to them (our leaders). It was parade day, and we were going to parade regardless of the weather, or how sick we thought we were. Of course the premise was a simple one to understand: War knows no standstill. Sick or not, sleep deprived or well rested, hungry and thirsty, bone weary, lonely and missing your mom, your dad, girlfriend or wife and children, the war as presented by an enemy will go on as scheduled. It’s a show with performances continuing until, and when finally some form of fade comes to pass. Then and only then will the vigilant be permitted to rest, seeking recovery. For many, recovery will never be their option.
There we stood, waiting in a cold mist for the next earth-moving command to be given. Like so many before us, as American soldiers we always found ways to laugh and clown under the worst of circumstances. Most of the time it was nothing more than poking fun at each other. Someone grabbing a guy’s rifle and passing it around from one soldier to another. As children we used to call it “keep away.” It was nothing more than pure adolescence.
And then my moment of transition arrived; without warning, the unexpected.
The booming voice of our sergeant major brought our meaningless mass together in no more than an instant. We became a solid block. Twenty-five hundred men became an imposing figure. We were at attention. The battalion commander appeared and marched to the center of the parade grounds, standing at attention before the sergeant major, who still remained facing us.
The commander was himself an overpowering figure. He was taller than any of us, and carried himself the way his West Point credentials required. He was a full bird colonel. The emblems glittered on his shoulders as he viewed us as if inspecting the most powerful group of warriors ever seen on this planet. We were taken by our leader’s presence.
Our sergeant turned a sharp about face and reported to the colonel, “All present and accounted for as ordered sir,” he bellowed and saluted simultaneously. The colonel returned his salute, and the sergeant moved to a side position, taking his place and becoming one of us. Again the colonel did his review. His eyes inspected all of us with an amazing display of pride, which I had never before experienced. At a seemingly precise moment the sergeant was once again in front of our body. He shouted, “Parade rest!” and as one unit we snapped into position. The sergeant again moved aside and our colonel took charge. The man’s presence was nothing short of inspiring. All was still as the colonel prepared to speak. Then it came: “Men, you are about to experience what only a very select group have ever had the privilege of experiencing.”
At that moment the battalion color guard appeared. To the beat of a single drum they marched into position on the parade grounds. If you can visualize the configuration of a football field; place the color guard at one end of the field. The colonel would be directly behind the guard. Next to enter was the Fort Lewis Army marching band. They took their position directly behind the color guard and in front of the colonel, and our twenty-five hundred man battalion. (What you had was a football field shape, taking up about five times the area.)
“Today you will be representing your country, the United States of America. Are you ready?”
As one we responded with, “Sir, yes sir!”
“Then give them hell, men!” he shouted.
The chills came in waves. What might seem cornball was anything but. The band struck up with John Philip Sousa’s Washington Post March, and at the precise moment the colonel bellowed again, “Give them hell, men!” He turned and signaled as if he was conducting a cavalry charge. We marched as one.
And then the final emotional wave, which has remained with me all of my life. I caught sight of our American flag leading our way. To date my chest has never expanded as much as it did on that very chilly day. The chill was gone, along with the young boy. We had exchanged a variety of mild indifference into unabashed pride in one’s self, and one’s country.
An interesting thing happened on our way back to the barracks following our parade experience. We weren’t the same group of young boys messing around as we did before the parade. That’s not to say our sense of humor had left us. The very next day we all returned to kidding around and still playing our schoolboy tricks on one another. But as this day wore down there were conversations about some unexpected feelings. For me personally, I never totally shared up until now what a life changing experience it was.
For those of you who have visited with me on Sparks St. in Burbank, you will recall our flag flying proudly in front of our door. It’s there every day that I am there.
This coming Wednesday, November 11, we pay tribute to our veterans. I pray you share my pride.