by Jake Block
Preface: I wasn’t going to publish this essay. I read it and thought that it could come off as whining of complaining, which is something that it was not meant to be. It’s simply my take on a topic that I’ve lived with for decades and how I, as an individual have learned to live with and and accept it. The ever wise and ever supportive Lisa Corrine, Mistress Babylon, suggested that I should publish and that it made her think. And that’s the point. So, here then is…
“Thank you for your service.” With Veteran’s Day coming up, you hear it even more. It’s become fashionable to say to anyone who’s ever worn a military uniform, whether you actually know the person or not. I suppose it’s meant to be a compliment or an expression of gratitude to the less than 1% of all Americans who serve in the military, while the other 99% do everything in their power to keep the hell out of harm’s way.
I personally would prefer people not tell me thanks for my service. First, they have no real idea what the hell my service was. I COULD have been John Wayne on steroids, cutting a wide swath through a vast field of enemies in an epic battle, or I COULD have been some poor sad sack rear echelon type greasing vehicles in the motor pool. My uniform could have been decorated with gold and silver and bronze medals, multi-colored ribbons and oak leaf clusters… or I could have had none at all, having spent my time with my head down, just marking time. The thing is, you don’t know. You have no way of knowing. You might assume, but as the oldsters used to say, don’t assume, because when you assume, you make and ass out of u and me.
Another reason I don’t care for it, is that when I WAS “serving,” serving was something that was hardly ever appreciated. This penchant for thanking people in uniform is a fairly new phenomenon. When I did most of my military service, being in the military had a stigma that made you feel somewhere between being a leper and a wife beater. The evening news was full of very prominent displays of how we were to be treated. Draftees or enlistees, it made little difference to those who stood in line to take their best shots at us for “doing our duty,” and that line was long.
I enlisted in the military in 1969, and when I went to the induction center in St. Louis on that cool Spring morning, I was one of only 8 people out of the 800+ taking the oath that day who volunteered to do so. It was almost a riot in the auditorium where we waited until a Federal Marshall announced that, “If you bastards don’t settle down now, I can have a thousand escorts here to settle you down in ten minutes.” Then, those of us who were enlisting were called out first to the boos and cat calls and threats of 800 draftees. Nobody thanked us. They just told us to shut the fuck up and move the line. I was 19.
Then came basic training at Lackland AFB, TX. Tech School at Shepard AFB, TX. Thirty days to get my affairs in order and get married and then seven months in the scorching heat of Wheelus AB, Libya under virtual house arrest. Because of the overthrow of the government by “Col.” Muammar Gadaffi and his order to leave the country, we were restricted to the barracks, work location, chow hall and church, if you went, and the movie theater once per week. Then it was a 6 month return to the United States and Cannon AFB, New Mexico, then two consecutive tours in Vietnam first at Cam Ranh Bay, and then Tuy Hoa. Then came the “Freedom Bird” back to the USA… HOME.
Home should be where the heart is, but there was no heart there for us. They didn’t thank us for our service. Instead, as our plane was on inbound to San Francisco International Airport, there came an announcement that protesters were waiting for us in the airport. “You will walk in a single file to the baggage area to retrieve your duffel bags. You will not respond to anyone. You will march… that is all.” We did our duty and followed orders and marched as they shouted and shoved and spit. They didn’t thank us. I wanted to get back on the plane to Vietnam.
But now we were stateside. We just wanted to go home to our loved ones. The draftees were mostly getting out. I was staying in the military as I had decided to make it my career. Two hours until my flight back to New Mexico. Two hours in silence, even in that crowded terminal. I got my ticket and sat down. The people on either side of me got up and walked away to sit elsewhere. People stared and pointed. Another guy in uniform from the same flight watched my back in the men’s room as I did my best to clean up my uniform, then I watched his back as he worked on his. Then we sat together until his flight was called, and mine a few moments later. I had made it. It was over… I thought. I took my seat on the aisle and the woman sitting next to me hit the flight attendant call button. When the attendant came, the woman asked to be reseated, because she didn’t sit next to pigs. I told her to stay where she was and made my way to an empty seat at the back of the plane to receive my reward of a full can of coke. Thanks for my service, indeed.
That was the last time in the next 17 years that I ever wore my uniform in public unless I had to attend a mandatory military function. I would wait until I was on base to put on my military shirt, where I wore my rank and decorations with pride. After work, just before stepping into my car or getting on my motorcycle, I slipped it off again, then carried it into the house. I found that I could live more easily with the honesty of those who would spit than those who eventually found it politically correct to glad-hand me and utter the proper words… words with little meaning.
Now, I’ve been out of the military for 28 years and while I am justifiably proud of my career and the things I accomplished, I’m old and cantankerous enough to just not give a damn anymore whether anyone, especially people who weren’t even born yet when I retired, like it or not. So yes, I’m a Vietnam Veteran, and I tip my hat in genuine honor and appreciation of those who served with me and in the long, costly wars that have come since, THE 1% who I hope will never be spit on, but will be justified in kicking the shit out of anyone who tries.
So, normally these days, when someone says, “Thank you for your service,” I respond with, “Thank you for your tax dollars,” and be on my merry way.