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Archive for May, 2011

Almost every Memorial Day, people who know that I am a Veteran will say something like, “Thank you for defending my country!  Your service was appreciated!”

And every Memorial Day when I hear those words, I feel a tinge of shame.

It’s true that I, along with 22 friends, enlisted in the U.S. Air Force. It’s also true that I received a medal for having served in a Zone of Operations, or something like that. I don’t remember the exact term right now.

But, and this is a pretty big but, the closest I ever came to an active combat zone, a place where bullets flew, and mortars exploded, and 500-pound bombs threw up tons of earth that eventually fell on some poor soldier’s back or neck, was about a thousand miles.

I used to joke about my service by saying something silly like, “The only combat I ever saw was two Marines beating the crap out of a Sailor in front of a bus station in Oakland, California.”

The part about the Marines and the Sailor is true. The three of them were obviously as drunk as skunks but retained enough consciousness to fade into the dark when they heard police sirens wailing in the distance.

My actual overseas military duty consisted of a two-year assignment on an ammunition depot. The purpose of the depot was to “receive, store, and ship” bombs to real Air Force bases, where the bombs were loaded on real airplanes and dropped on phantom people on another planet. In my young mind, “those people” were shadows without a real existence.

Within this scheme, I sat in a clean office, warm in the winter and cool in the summer, and processed paperwork, bills of lading for the shipment and receipt of the bombs. It was a plush existence, and somewhere within the back of my mind, I often felt that tinge of shame.

I felt somehow that I should be where the action was, and on two occasions, I applied for duty in the real Zone of Operations. My application was rejected both times on the ground that my presence as a paper shuffler was essential to the “pursuance of United States military objectives,” or some such official jargon signifying nothing.

My work was actually so boring that my only salvation was sports. The Air Force actually had an outstanding sports program for its members, probably because it kept paper pushers like me occupied and out of trouble. To an extent, the program served its purpose. I received a Good Conduct Medal but only because I and my buddies never got caught.

I often wondered about the logic that would prevent me from an assignment to a combat zone because I was essential where I was while at the same time, permitting me to be absent from the job anytime for the purpose of participating in a softball game.

This was my existence for two years. At the end of my overseas tour, I returned to California and received an honorable discharge. That was it. The sum total of my part in defending our country.

This year, as I received the usual well meaning thanks, I wondered for the first time if Americans really know what Memorial Day is all about. I myself have known for years that it’s a day to remember those of our servicemen and women who died defending the United States of America. Apparently, many Americans can’t separate Memorial Day from Veterans Day. The latter is a day set aside to honor all of our Veterans, living and dead. I fit this category.

And yet, I often feel unworthy to be included in the category that also includes real combat veterans. I personally would like to see a day set aside for living Veterans who actually served in combat, Veterans whose lives were in danger every moment they were in an active war zone, Veterans who suffered horrible physical and mental wounds, and who will suffer for the rest of their lives.

These are the men and women who have seen the real thing. These are the men and women we should really and truly honor. Not a pretend jock like me. There are others more worthy.

Note: Someone is going to read this and conclude that I am demeaning millions of veterans who were in essential support roles. Nothing could be further from the truth. I know that for every man or woman who faces the real danger of death, at least 10,000 or more men and women are needed to support them.

There is no shame in providing hot meals for a tired group returning from a combat patrol. There is no shame in collecting and providing data to a platoon leader on the ground to facilitate a mission. There is no shame in flying a load of necessary combat supplies from an air base in New Jersey to an air base in Germany, where the supplies will be divided into smaller increments for shipment to a variety of bases in Afghanistan. There is no shame in standing guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia.

I am fully aware of these facts. I am merely reporting my own twinges of guilt when someone thanks me for “defending our country.” I have a difficult time applying those words to my own cushy job.

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Memorial Day is the day set aside as a national holiday to remind us that many Americans have died in wars over the years.

The holiday began as Decoration Day shortly after the end of the Civil War to commemorate Union soldiers who perished in that terrible conflict. The name was changed to Memorial Day after World War I and so it remains today.

In the beginning, Americans honored their dead by placing flowers at the graves of the deceased. Something seems to have been lost over the years.

My neighbor is celebrating by hammering, nailing, and sawing boards, interspersed with the sounds of a drill and a blower. Maybe he’s building a monument.

Facebook is celebrating by performing maintenance on my account. They’ve apparently been celebrating intermittently for a week or so based on the many notifications and abject apologies I receive when trying to sign in. Oddly, Facebook seem to celebrate none of my acquaintances. I feel privileged.

And millions of individual Americans will celebrate by whipping out credit cards and taking advantage of Memorial Day sales, perhaps on the assumption that a part of the price of their purchases will go to the Army and Navy Relief funds.

At Lake Havasu, a goodly number of virtually-naked women will bob up and down in fiberglass boats to the adoring looks of squadrons of equally semi-naked males, while deputy sheriffs wait for an opportunity to quell a fracas so they can get an up close and personal look at the cellulite.

Hordes of politicians will visit national cemeteries where they will orate in glowing terms and sweeping phrases about sacrifice and patriotism, adjourning thereafter to the air-conditioned comfort of their country clubs. I feel a little bit of acid reflux spilling out at the thought of these annual rituals.

Quite a few people who have actually lost loved ones in a war will visit their graves not so much to honor them but to cry futilely for their return. Their faces will twist with an agony so palpable that we want to cry with them.

In reality, Memorial Day is a day of grief and sadness for millions of Americans.

This is a reprint of a post from May 26, 2009, updated to account for a couple of changes and a link that no longer works. If you don’t find a picture of some semi-nude women at Lake Havasu, blame it on whoever removed the link.

I also want to explain the point I thought I was making in the old post. What I intended to say was that we seem to have lost a sense of patriotism in the past few years. Some readers thought I meant just the opposite. I am not sure if my ability to communicate is limited or if the ability of the reader to receive and process written information is also limited. Perhaps both factors are at play.  Who knows these things?

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O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!

I have a friend that I want to send a gift to but I want to remain anonymous.

I have no devious purpose in sending her a gift. I merely want to let her know that someone values her friendship.

She is, after all, a valuable human being, a woman with a giant intellect and a subtle wit that can nail you to the barn door before you’ve had a chance to escape.

Her compassion is astounding, given that she has endured psychological inflictions and economic hardships that would bring most of us to our knees.

I have never met this woman in person, but I’d like to someday because she is a good human being, and  far too many decent people go through life with few if any kind words or expressions of friendship. I want her to know that someone is thinking about her and wishes her well

I don’t need thanks. A good deed is not a good deed if it is done with an expectation of recognition or reward. But expectation isn’t my own personal goal.I just want her to enjoy the gift I send.

Even though I will send a gift anonymously, she may suspect who I am. That probably can’t be avoided. But if she asks me, I’ll evade the question somehow.

Why am I doing this? The world is full of so much hate, I sometimes feel like I am suffocating in it.

I want to create my own bubble of clean, fresh air.

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