Being a combat veteran is not simple. A personal incident from several months ago comes to mind as an illustration. Please let me explain.
I had been invited to a dinner sponsored by the Northwest chapter of the Intruder Association in an effort to drum up support and build ties between Vietnam era aviators and those from follow on decades.
The thinking was that a local author might provide a bit of leverage to jump start the process and close the gap.
With the official presentations and introductions over, one gent immediately caught my attention as he weaved between diners in a bee-line directly to me in the restaurant of the Oak Harbor Yacht Club.
He carried himself with a confident yet relaxed stride that seemed to match his disheveled, but comfortably neat attire. He squared off in front of me.
“I just wanted to let you know that I really enjoyed your book.” He looked at me with intelligent intensity.
Ten minutes earlier the guy had been alternating his attention between light-heartedly bidding on various A-6 sketches for charity and entertaining his grandson, although the man didn’t look or act old enough to be a grandparent.
He carried himself with the self-confidence of a well-liked and skilled aviator who also aspired to the class-clown mantle and frankly didn’t give a damn about any perceived inconsistency.
Instantly, I admired him. I mumbled something back about it probably being a pale shadow of his experiences flying Intruders in Vietnam.
“Killing people is killing people.” He replied.
He said it without hesitation. He didn’t lower his voice or offer a subtle apology, and of course there was no reason he should have.
After all, that was the common thread between most of us in the room – we had all killed people from the platform of the old A-6 Intruder, a retired Navy low-level bomber. Still, the straightforward honesty jolted me into refreshing alertness.
“Yes, that’s true.” I replied evenly. I liked this guy. I respected this guy a lot.
Veterans should be thanked at least once a year, but to those who have not served please be forewarned: things are not as simple or straightforward as they might seem. I am proud of my time in the Navy and my combat experience.
And that pride is deeply unsettling.
Life carries many contradictions. Combat magnifies that effect exponentially.
When you thank a veteran today, it’s okay not to know the full extent of what you are thanking him for, but please: pry only if invited and remember that compassion need not be familiar with circumstance to be honest.
Thanks to all my fellow veterans.
“The Swordsmen delivered more than 2 million pounds of ordnance and flew 1358.8 flight hours during Operation Desert Storm. VA-145 was officially credited with destroying or severely damaging 33 tanks, 48 artillery pieces, 41 naval vessels, 25 missile components, 23 conventional and chemical munitions bunkers, 13 oil facilities, 7 communications sites, 5 hangars, 8 piers, 2 barracks, a bridge, a power plant, and a rail yard. Additionally, the squadron mined 4 critical lines of communication.
The only number that was conspicuously missing was the one we would never know – how many people we had killed.”
– From the closing chapter of Angles of Attack, an A-6 Intruder pilots War