Friday, November 11, 2005

Veteran's Day Musings

At 18 years of age, in March of 1985, I walked into a National Guard recruiter’s office in Urbana, Illinois and told the startled NCO sitting there, “I want to sign up, what do you have?” It wasn’t an impetuous or rash decision, for I had thought for a while about doing just that thing.
My family had always answered when the nation called – my father and my maternal grandfather were both WWII Navy. My Uncle Jack was an astonishing hero. The Explorer leader that taught me to shoot was an Army Ranger that had fought through Nazi occupied Europe. Being surrounded by these men, it was never a question of serving or not, rather a question of how. To me the Guard seemed a natural fit. I could serve and finish college. So off to Fort Benning and the United States Army Infantry School it was that very June.
Oh boy. I was not a weak person, nor unworldly – but it was an education, and a hard one at that. Safe to say, it changed me forever. I simply couldn’t see things the way I had before. I was now a part of the defense of my country (remember, this was when the Soviets were making their last big efforts to keep up with us).
I decided, rather quickly, that I really wanted to get into the officer side of the house. So, two years later, I earned a commission as a Second Lieutenant. The Berlin Wall fell, the Soviet Empire vanished and I began to wonder about the nature of my service. Just then,
Desert Shield/Desert Storm came along and reminded me that just maybe the world wasn’t going to mellow permanently. I still remember how eagerly all the officers in my company volunteered to go – and they didn’t take, nor need, a one of us.
I had married and started law school when the Floods of 1993 came along – so I spent July of that year leading my company up the levees (running like hell down the levees when they started to breach) and flinging sandbags. Yet another reminder to me of why the National Guard was around.
I graduated, became an Assistant State’s Attorney, and moved to the Army Reserves. I had settled in quite nicely when I got a phone call at work one day in February 1997. “Sir, do you have a fax machine at your location?” Uh-oh.

Me in Sarajevo, outside a law office.

Orders for 9 months in support of Operation Joint Guard/Joint Endeavor. I believed that it would be the adventure of my life (oh, how little I knew of what was coming). It was a very strange homecoming – my wife met me, alone, at the gate in the airport (remember, this was back when you could do that) and we drove home. 5 days later, I was back at work. A few polite questions, but not much of a fuss.
The years started to slip past again. I rejoined the Guard, we had two children, and I moved into private practice. Then one morning my wife asked me if I had seen the airplane crash on the news. September 11, 2001. I knew right then that everything would change. I remember so clearly the President’s speech in which he told all of us in the Armed Forces that his message to us was “be ready”. I was.
But the months rolled on, and still no call. No alert, no stand-by. Unit after unit was called for airport security, backfilling security at European or US bases. We overthrew the Taliban, and turned toward Iraq. Still, nothing. When the Iraq campaign started, I sat like anyone else, watching TV, searching the Internet, poring over the papers. It struck me that I was going to sit another shooting war on the sidelines. I often felt guilty – but would look down at my 2 year old daughter and 4 year old son and feel relieved. That lasted a few months. The phone rang again.
I had made Major the year before, and was let in on enough to know that something was coming. Just not what it would be. The Guard kept things very close to the vest at that time. Fall of 2003, we started to prepare – but for where we knew not. I bought Arabic language tapes and read everything I could on Iraq. Naturally, we were assigned to Afghanistan.

I started out as the Executive Officer of Task Force Dragon – the garrison of Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. 5 months of sometime frustration, sometime reward, all the time learning. I had no idea how much I would miss my family – when I had blithely gone off to Europe in 1997, I was a knucklehead. Now I was not just a husband, but also the father of two young children. I tried to keep myself on track – I worked out like crazy, I e-mailed and called home when I could. And in one turn of good luck, I became the Instapundit’s Afghanistan Correspondent. Professor Reynolds let me tell my tale, and it had a therapeutic effect, I must admit.

Then our CMO (Civil-Military Operations) officer left. After strenuous lobbying – I was allowed to move into that job. I guess it didn’t hurt that we had a spare officer, one rank higher than me, to add into our staff.

I moved around our three province area, got into a bit of trouble a few times (only really scared three times) saw things breath-taking, heart-breaking and glad. Met friends and allies, and saw some of the finest people currently in an American military uniform.

I came home to a welcome I only wish our Vietnam veterans could have had.
[One of my co-workers is a Vietnam veteran, and I asked him why he wasn’t on the “time off list” for Friday. He looked a bit blankly at me and said “Friday, what’s Friday? Oh, right, Veteran’s Day.” He shrugged and told me about how when he had gotten back from Vietnam his WWII veteran father had taken him to his local VFW Post where he received a less than enthusiastic reception.]
About the time I thought I had readjusted to home, that damned phone rang again. Back to the old school – Katrina duty. I have already worried that hangnail enough.

I have had a bit of a time readjusting to home. Mostly letdown, I suppose. I led one last patrol on March 19th – and I am not ashamed to say that I sat in my corner of the wooden hut that night and let the tears roll. I was afraid that at 38 years of age, I had reached the summit of my life, as far as importance or achievement would go. I still grapple with that once in a while.

For over 20 years I have been in the Guard, Reserves or on Active Duty. I find it harder and harder to remember what it was like not being in. I have been changed, mostly for the better, I think. I take so much less for granted; I value the blessings of this nation that much more, and I value the service of those who went before me more deeply.

If I could ask just one thing of all of you – appreciate, no; rejoice in every freedom and every opportunity that my brothers-in-arms and I have tried to secure for you and yours.


Blogger Simon Peter said...

Bless you Major John. Bravo and thank you for your service.

7:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A friend commented that we 'aren't that far out of the caves' meaning that those freedoms we often take for granted can disappear in an instant but for the selfless men and women who defend them. Like you. Thank you and bless you, evry day.


10:38 AM  
Blogger Pixie said...

I am rejoicing.

Thank you Major John, Inner Prop and all who serve... including military families.


12:54 PM  
Blogger Rob B. said...

The world is a better place for the things that you do. There isn't a better gift you could give your family and to the rest of us.


2:26 PM  
Anonymous Scott P said...

Major John, I have every confidence that the great things you've done to date are only just the beginning.

Thanks for your service, sir.

3:11 PM  
Blogger Inner Prop said...

While I took my three daughters to see Chicken Little (in 3D no less) my Dad called to do something he never had before, wish me a happy Veteran's Day.

My Dad was the first in his family to join the military (ALL the men in his family were Chicago Firemen going back to 1904) and he went to Viet Nam for a short while back in 1963 or 64 (when only a few Marines and such were there).

My mother's uncle was a Ranger who went into Normandy on DDay. Her father was in the Army Air Corps. She was born while he was away.

My brother Shawn, a Chicago Firefighter and a Naval Reservist was deployed to Kuwait while MJ and I were in Afghanistan.

What I'm trying to say is Happy Veteran's Day to all of you and I've got some phone calls to make.

3:40 PM  
Blogger Bryan said...

Major John,
We all have our times and friends we make in life but no stronger bond than among soldiers! God bless you, thanks for your service to this country! from and another sodier, V/R SGM B. A. Tyler

10:26 PM  

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