My Veterans Day Story
A few stories from my vault about our veterans on this Veterans Day.
First, allow me to salute the fine men and women who have risked their lives for this nation on a special Veterans Day intended to remember all those who served, and especially those who sacrificed.
I have two short military-related stories to share, which aren’t anything on the scale of real veterans who served in the armed forces. But the stories, I think, are poignant. At least for me, they still hold meaning all these years later. I feel the need to write them down and remember.
In high school, I joined a military youth organization called the Civil Air Patrol, which is an active organization within the federal government that closely aligns with the Air Force.
We met and trained weekly at the Dallas Naval Air station, which was a Navy base on the edge of Mountain View Lake, attached to the huge Vought aircraft plant. Vought Industries made Corsairs (I think), which were used in Vietnam. The Vought factory had opened during WW2 and was a huge defense plant. [See the photo below of an actual KENNEDY MOTORCADE in front of the plant, that is now entirely forgotten by history.]
It closed down in the 1980s, but when I was there, it had Navy and Air Force personnel, including my unit of the Civil Air Patrol. I made it all the way to Corporal (about as low as it gets in rank).
I was seriously thinking about a career in the military. We did everything soldiers do so far as training goes. I even got a radio-telephone operator’s license (that was my “specialty”). We marched, saluted, had inspections, and I got a real taste of military life.
One weekend, we got an assignment I will NEVER forget. One weekend per month, we stayed overnight on the military base and did the usual training associated with night security. We had a barracks, just like you see in the movies. Part of the building had not been cleaned in at least 5-10 years.
This was in 1977, and the Vietnam War had ended just a few years earlier (the last American troops left in 1973). There were lots of Vietnam-era hardware around, and that was the basis of our training materials.
As a grunt, that Saturday, I was told to go up to a room in the barracks, one of many, and with my colleagues help to sort through piles, and I mean PILES, of old Air Force uniforms, mostly fatigues, but even a few flight suits. All the fatigues had blue name tags stitched into the green fabric. We were instructed to take knives and REMOVE all the names from the old uniforms. There were hundreds. They were to be sold as scrap to Army-Navy stores as military surplus, which was a thing back then. So, I stick a sharp knife into the cloth and cut the thin threads, and peeled off the last name of a soldier who had served, many in Vietnam.
After you see another Smith, Wallace, Gonzalez, Wilson, Kramer on a uniform, it becomes routine. We were all just dumb 14 and 15-year-old kids, and we began making jokes about some of the last names, especially if they sounded weird. “Hey, look at this one!”
I still remember his name to this day, and it’s been 43 years. His name was Col. Sandbach. He was an Air Force Colonel, retired I think. But he served as our CAP commander. Col. Sandbach was making inspections and heard us laughing. He heard us making a game out of the work we were doing, ripping name tags off of Air Force uniforms.
The colonel walked in and we snapped to attention. Ten-hut!
He asked what we were laughing about, and we told him. Then, Col. Sandbach listened, and then quietly spoke:
“You boys know some of those fatigues you are holding in your hands are from men who didn’t come back, don’t you?”
“Show them some respect.”
With that, he turned and walked out of the room.
I will never, never, never forget the shame of that moment.
In 1986, I was out of college and not sure what to do with my life. I actually enlisted in Marine Corps Officer Candidate School, but when they tested me and found out I was colorblind, they removed me from the flight school and told me I had to go to ground school, which was all fine with me.
I took the PFT, passed all the exams, and then was slated to go to basic training, in San Diego, I think. But then, the USMC ground school, which only had two classes for officers per year, was canceled, and I was told I’d have to wait for at least 6 mos, and probably a year to get in. So, I went on with my life and moved to other things.
It’s a curious thing to think about forks in the road and forecast where you might have been and the person you might be had you taken a different path. Sometimes, things are just beyond our control.
Who knows? Perhaps I and many others who took different forks on the path of life might have worn uniforms that years later were inventoried by kids in a barracks, laughing and unaware of the sacrifices of the men (and women) who had once worn the cloth
My thoughts on this Veterans Day 2020.