We tackle the garage again. It is an adventure in which we travel back into our past, winnowing through our collections to sift out the treasures and tote the rest out to the trash. And we do it all in service of making space in our suburban two-car garage for two cars.
I threw myself into the project with relish when I spotted my U.S. Army duffel bag on a high shelf in the back of the garage this morning.
It was fifty years ago this January that I dragged it off the luggage conveyor at the brand new Houston Intercontinental Airport. I threw the bag into the trunk of our car and took it home where I changed out of my travel uniform, stuffed it in as the top layer of the bag and threw it all in a closet. I kept it just handy enough that I could find it in case international politics required me to get the haircut again during my four year reserve commitment.
There it has stayed fifty years unopened except to pull that travel dress uniform off the top layer to have it adapted into a Halloween costume for our son. (DOD, be at ease. There was no official insignia displayed that would have caused the enemy to think the United States was drafting children.) He was dressing as General Eisenhower, five stars and all. I think he probably copied the fruit salad of medals from an encyclopedia and I would bet he had them pretty close to true.
I took great pleasure in moving the bag out onto our driveway, unhooking the top strap, and turning it upside down onto the pavement.
There were enough serviceable items there that a costumer I know got excited and had khaki uniforms and O.D. cotton items in the washing machine within minutes. I suspect she will soon be looking for Vietnam era scripts to see if there are opportunities to recall my old fatigues into the service of the arts.
Anything of wool had been found by the moths but that was only one overcoat and the nice green socks that made the boots bearable. That is too bad since that overcoat had a zip in-lining and would have been useful if we ever had another cold front in Texas.
Surprisingly, I got most excited about seeing my Marksman Badge again with its Rifle qualifying tag. I checked it against Wikipedia and confirmed that the U.S. Army really did call me a marksman. I was convinced that there was some higher level of recognition that would be noted on another hanging tag that would identify as “Marksman” those who could hit a target with some degree of regularity. Nevertheless, I, the borderline pacifist who still reads the 2nd Amendment the way we did before D.C. v. Heller, have it again in my possession to prove that I once fired a rifle and hit something. And the government has certified me as deadly.
Whenever I talk about my life in the military I feel compelled to say that, although I thought U.S. foreign policy was dreadfully wrong for a country of our moral responsibility and standing in the world, I can never speak badly of the men and women who served in Vietnam doing something most of us have no will or opportunity to do in the 21st Century. And that is, to risk all that you have or could ever hope to achieve in the service of the people of your country.
In 2015 The Guardian ran a review of some of the photography from the war. Looking through those photos is a quick reminder of the horror and sin of the war. (See The Guardian review at this link.) Not all American soldiers behaved with honor and there were betrayals of our purported national purpose and their basic humanity. It almost always happens with war.
I was very lucky in my assignment and although I often speak of my army years with a lighthearted contempt, I always gave the best service that I could. Not much was ever asked of me by way of comparison with the men and women who served in Vietnam.
Many other brave souls served by opposing the policies and, some, by leaving the country for good. But, to me, there is something special about the sacrifice of the soldiers who served in Vietnam. Many were young and they were not students of foreign policy. They only knew that they were called to serve through the legitimate power of their government, the same one that liberated France, defeated Hitler, and stopped the horror of the Holocaust in Europe. I will never belittle the dedication of Vietnam veterans, either the living or the dead, who risked it all for something they held as sacred – America and the principles we stand for in our special community.