It’s November 11th, 2019, and it’s been a long time since I have worn the uniform of an active duty Naval officer.
Growing up before my own entry into the Navy, I had a number of relatives who served in the U.S. military and in some of the bloodiest fighting of WWII that occurred in the Pacific theater. They didn’t talk about it much, and I was always trying to get them to tell their stories to no avail. It wasn’t until years later I understood why they would not speak of it.
I did watch, though, with what the reverence they were treated on Veterans Day and how it seemed for one day a year my great uncle went from being an average citizen to something very special. He was a chief corpsman at Iwo Jima, with all the horror that entailed. Over the years of my own military service, it was always an honor and privilege to speak to veterans and show them around the ship and our equipment, but mostly just listen to their stories from the “old hands.”
In one particular case, I recall going to a rest home to visit a former naval officer who had suffered a stroke early on in life. He was mostly paralyzed and far too young to be in his current and permanent situation. With a few young midshipmen who were with me, I sat down and listened. We listened to the stories of service and the adventures long gone. It wasn’t much, but he seemed pleased to have our company. I heard later he passed not long after our visit. The experience stuck with me my entire career. I don’t remember his name, but the look on his face when we took time to see him said it all. It was his last Veterans Day.
Over the years and the deployments, I had opportunity to serve with the finest men and women in the world, who wrote a blank check to the United States of America with their lives. Some did not come home, others came home with bodies broken and souls tortured by the things they had seen and done. I keep in touch with many of them, and we talk.
Sometimes it’s important to reach out to another who understands and listens. A former classmate of mine escaped a horrible collision with another helicopter while refueling for the next mission. I have seen the photos of his burned and twisted aircraft, and I cannot believe he is alive today. He continued to fly combat missions. We have spoken about it a few times, and it has left an indelible mark on his soul. Another close friend was permanently brain injured by an IED in Iraq, his short term memory destroyed, another lives with a traumatic amputation of the lower extremities.
My own cousin, a combat engineer and survivor of 38 IED explosions, was forced to retire due to multiple exposures to concussive force in explosions. These folks have given all that’s ever been asked of them and more. I have sat down with broken veterans at Operation Stand Down to offer them assistance with coming home. Sometimes it was just helping them fill out a form for things they needed, a hot shower, a meal, and sometimes it was, again, just listening.
So on this Veterans Day, I was not happy with what I witnessed in East Greenwich, the birthplace of the United States Navy. The fire department led the parade in force, with many fire trucks but a virtual lack of veterans. No veterans were represented in the bandstand with the various school and municipal leaders. No national ensigns — replaced in some cases sweatpants, sneakers, and jeans — being worn by our civic leaders involved in the ceremony.
There were, however, representatives from the Ghostbusters in full turnout gear, although I’m not exactly sure what they had to do with the day’s events or what the value add was.
I witnessed our own state representative Justine Caldwell trying to have a conversation with Town Council President Mark Schwager during the national anthem. He had the dignity not to respond. Not everybody had their hands on their hearts.
What I witnessed was a “mailed in” version of what this day is supposed to mean. I do not speak for all veterans but I think the majority would agree with me: Please, if this is how you will honor us, don’t bother. We will take our trials and stories to each other and raise a glass to our shipmates who did not make it home by ourselves.