I am a veteran.
Actually, I'm even a war veteran. So I suppose today is my day. But I never really think about myself like that. When I see parades and heartfelt postings on Facebook and all of that, I never quite associate it to myself. I just went, and came back - not really anything special.
I accept the benefits, and - uncomfortably - the "thank you's", but I never really think of them as being for me. I think of them more for the other guys, the veterans who never were. Men that didn't get to come home.
We remember them on Memorial Day, true enough, but I can't think about Veteran's Day without remembering them, too - at least, the ones I've known.
Read on . . .
In 1989, we were just a few days out of Norfolk, on our way to a typical 6-month lap around the Mediterranean as part of a Marine Amphibious Ready Group. These groups rotate in and out of the Med on a continual basis, just in case something happens over there that we need to deal with (on one deployment, we were pulled over to the Adriatic to support relief flights during the war in Serbia).
Another ship in our group, the El Paso, was doing a live-fire exercise with its Phalanx CIWS (pronounced "See-Wiz"), an anti-missile system that looks, I kid you not, like R2-D2 with a chubby. The chubby, in this case, is a 20 mm gatling gun that fires depleted uranium rounds (one row down on the periodic chart, uranium is heavier than lead and, consequently, carries more punch). It has a snazzy dual-radar system and a computer-brain that, when left to itself, will automatically identify approaching threats and shoot them until it can't tell the pieces from its own ammunition. I can't even try to describe the noise it makes.
Later, it would be said the El Paso was out of alignment in the convoy, and it well may have been. What is known for sure is that the El Paso's CIWS was firing at a drone target, which broke into large pieces. One of those pieces flew off this way instead of that way, and the CIWS decided to track it instead of the main target. Sitting four miles away, we were strafed stern to bow. Our navigator, Lt. Commander K., was standing outside on the bridge wing, getting a weather report from one of the meteorologists, when he was hit in the side.
A 20 mm round is about 4 inches long, and 3/4 of an inch thick. It passed through him like he wasn't there, and went out his other side just above the hip. They kept trying a long time after they got him down to sick bay, but my best friend at the time - who happened to be working on the bridge that day, and was there holding him until the medics arrived - told me he saw the lights go out well before they showed up.
The Lt. Commander stayed with him a long time after that. Spoke to him in his dreams. Woke him up once, when his house was on fire.
During the Gulf War, we were parked in Manama, Bahrain for what seemed like forever. We'd rushed over to the Gulf when Desert Shield (which would later be Desert Storm) started up, and were catching up on an overhaul of our boiler room that we hadn't had time to do back home. The captain was eager to be done and back in action, but the CHENG (Chief Engineer) protested that he hadn't had enough time to review the work of the local contractors. The captain overrruled him - we were heading out tomorrow.
I was manning a "liberty" log that day - men leaving the ship came and signed out with me, so I could make sure they were on the list that meant they were approved to go on liberty. It was a boring shift - we'd been in Bahrain for weeks, and even though there were bars and clubs, unlike most of the Middle East, most of the guys had done everything there was to do.
But three men did come to sign out. I didn't know them - they were snipes (guys from the engineering crew, below decks) and we didn't normally wouldn't have had a reason to run into each other, even living together on a ship. Two of their names checked out, the third was missing. His friends asked me to give him a break - he was brand new, had just transferred in the day before, and there hadn't been time to add him to the log.
It was a judgement call, but it was the last day in port, he seemed earnest, and I didn't generally mind giving out breaks, so I waved them along. Not that it matters, in the end, but I've always been very glad I made that call.
The next morning, we were just getting underway - literally 20 minutes from casting off the ropes, when the alarms started. We all rushed to our "battle stations" and tried to fish for news - what could have happend when we were still in port?
What had happened was that a substandard valve installed by those local contractors had failed, and the engine room had been flooded with steam under intense pressure. Nine men died immediately, one was unlucky enough to get out of the space and live for another day or so.
The three men I'd let go on liberty the day before were among them, including the new guy.
There's a lot I will not tell you about what steam does to the human body when it floods into an enclosed metal room, a lot you honestly don't ever want to know. I will only say we were cleaning the engine room for a very long time.
Eleven men, dead. Eleven men that didn't get to bitch about their VA benefits, or remember the old days with laughter or tears, or even just come home. Eleven men that didn't even fall to enemy fire, because the military always has been and always will be an inherently dangerous business, and anyone that thinks it's easy or safe, even in peace time, doesn't know enough to be talking on the subject.
Eleven men to be remembered on Memorial Day, yes, but just as much today. Because anyone today that can call themselves "veteran" could have ended up like them, and we all know it. And it's impossible to think about ourselves without thinking about them, too.