Memorial Day weekend. This day, along with Veteran’s Day, is one of the most uncomfortable times of the year for me. I hear the statements all the time – even today, twenty years removed from my last day of wearing an Air Force uniform.That’s right. I served in the United States Air Force from March of 1986 to April of 1994. And of those eight years, seven were spent as a very open and public Pagan. I have talked about my experiences as a Pagan in the Air Force before (Part One) (Part Two). What I have not talked about is my experiences as a former member of the United States military.
Typically, when folks find out that I am former military, I hear the platitudes – the most common being: “Thank you for your service.” I cringe inwardly every single damn time I hear that statement. Its almost as if I am looked at as someone who joined to fight for something or defend something. I didn’t. Yes, I spoke the oath – “I will defend and protect the Constitution of the United States against aggressors, foreign and domestic. I will obey the lawful orders of my superiors and the orders of my Commander in Chief.” Yada, yada, yada. Back then at the MEPs (Military Entrance Processing location), it was merely a statement that started me on to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. Then on to Technical Training school at Shepherd Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Texas. And then finally on to my first duty assignment at Carswell Air Force in Fort Worth, Texas. That little oath meant nothing to me then – except a way to stay alive, fed, and clothed. I had wasted away a golden opportunity at college, and with no job prospects, and no skillset to work with – I figured this was the best chance I had. I didn’t join to serve and protect – I joined to stay alive.
The oath of enlistment means more to me now – with the sturdiness that twenty years of
hindsight and experience can provide me with. The weight of what it means is far heavier in my mind now than it was back in my early twenties. Thinking back, I was just a dumb, happy-go-lucky kid who had very little understanding of where he was in the world – and didn’t care much about it at all. I was naive about the way the world worked. And I wasn’t worried about fitting in at all.
I’m still the round-peg that is being pounded into the square hole. I am a little more cognizant of where and how I am seen by the rest of the world-at-large. And I am still not worried about the perception of others. But I understand far better what such an oath as the Oath of Enlistment really means. I have a large measure of respect for the young folks of today, raising their right hands, and taking on the burden that the Oath puts to them. And for the most part, I believe that many of them are far more aware of how heavy that burden really is than I was at their age. I truly am thankful for their desire to be of service.
But this is why I cringe inwardly when I hear that statement applied to me. Its why I do not self-identify myself in large crowds as a military veteran. I hear the words stated from folks – and it comes off as an empty statement from them. Like a line that must be parroted so that their own patriotism can be on display. There’s the statement, the obligatory handshake, and then they disappear into the crowd. Almost like its a safe place to make such a statement – with no backing to the words. And here’s where my rant on this begins….
A few years back, I watched an individual literally give the shirt off of his back to help a lady cover the costs of her food for her and her child. He was a retired veteran, living off his rather meager retirement money. His offer of assistance essentially took the food from his table and put it on to her table. Over the next few days, I watched as he went without lunch and no one else offered him any food – including me. On the fifth day, I watched as he stumbled through the office – obviously weak from hunger. Other co-workers commented that he must be drunk – especially since his appearance was not the greatest in the world. Considering how much money he made – there was no way he could be there in a Gucci suit. When our breaks coincided, I followed him outside to sit on a concrete bench. In that short talk, I found out that he had not only given his monthly retirement check to the mother, but also his last paycheck here at the company as well. When lunch came around, I took him out to eat, and we talked more. His electricity had been turned off for non-payment, and he was not sure how he was going to cover the month’s rent. When I offered to help him out, he refused. He would rather lose his apartment than take charity. After work, I went to his apartment complex, and spoke with the manager there. I paid his rent for the month in-full. When she asked for a name to give to him – I told her “its from a fellow veteran. We take care of our own.” I never spoke to him about it, and he never brought it up to me. I figure he suspected it was me. But there was no need to discuss it.
We take care of our own. I lived by that creed when I was in the military. As a Non-Commissioned Officer, my job was to not only get the tasks in my duty section taken care of, but I also had to nurture and assist my subordinates. In essence, I was their parent in camouflage. When they had need, I made sure it was met. When I needed tasks completed, I knew they would give me one-thousand percent. Twenty years out of uniform, I still talk with some of my former troops. They still come to me for advice. I will have their back when they have need. They have mine. But who has ours??
Currently, the news is filled with stories of corruption at the Veterans Administration, concerning waiting lists for veterans seeking medical care. Its difficult to read the stories, because I can literally see the faces of people I served with in those stories. Individuals in need of care. Individuals needing a helping hand. Individuals who proudly wore a uniform, lived a life not governed by the Constitution that they had sworn to uphold and defend. Individuals who put their entire lives on hold to be the ones who would be in the gap when needed. And now that they have given – the most that they get in return is a statement of “Thank you for your service.” And typically, that happens only when you are fairly well dressed – and essentially able to stand on your own two feet.
So, its Memorial Day weekend. Most folks will have a nice cookout in the backyard with hamburgers, hotdogs, potato salad and a few beers. How about remembering what this weekend is really about? Not just remembering the soldiers who have died – giving their lives in the ultimate sacrifice for the freedoms we all enjoy under the Constitution (here in America). Not just remembering the ones currently in uniform. Not just remembering the people down the street, in their nice homes with a nice job. Let’s also remember the veterans that are sleeping on park benches downtown, underneath the towering overpasses in their cardboard box cities – the ones who desperately need some help. They gave. They had your back. How about having theirs??