Today is my day, our day. It a little over 43 years ago that I joined the army. I was only 18, a month away from being 19, but the army was a choice I had made for two reasons, to get my life together, and because I had a strong feeling of patriotism.
My father was a veteran of World War 2. He served in North Africa, Italy, and France as a part of the 319th Bomb Group, 335th Bomb Squadron (B-26s). He was a corporal in the armament section. I remember as a kid asking him to tell me of his experience in that war but he was heavily resistant to saying much of anything. When he died in 1970, I knew very little of his experience. Over the years and mostly because of the Internet, I know a lot of the details of his experience. I have also come to understand why combat veterans give details of their experience begrudgingly.
In late 1968 I was assigned to a signal company in Korea, a short distance north of Seoul. I was one of the fortunate few who did not receive a Vietnam assignment, although I have a sort of “survivor’s guilt” about that. I was told by a sergeant major in 1974 that I had been in a combat zone myself. He said that all troops north of the Han River in Korea were in a combat zone. I don’t know.
It must seem curious today to people that there was any combat in Korea after the peace treaty of 1953, but there was. Early in 1968 the Naval ship USS Pueblo was seized by the North Koreans and its crew was held hostage for a year. In 1969 an Air Force EC-121, an intelligence gathering aircraft, was shot down over North Korea. I was in Korea at that time. I remember our battalion commander coming into my area. I was in charge of a portion of the communications for the 8th Army Headquarters although I was not attached to those HQ. He looked scared. We were receiving messages that were identified as “Red Rockets.” That meant they were messages of the highest priority coming from either the White House or the Pentagon. We learned that one of the two Infantry Divisions stationed in Korea had been moved from its more southerly position toward the DMZ (demilitarized zone). STRIKE Command at McDill AFB in Florida had been scrambled and was en route as were squadrons stationed in Japan. So to were western Pacific naval forces. From a neighbor I had in Italy in 1972 I learned that at least a portion of the McDill group was nuclear capable. Fortunately we did not know this. My communications center was locked down, no one in or out, and machine guns were set up around it. I knew then, and now in better detail, that we were preparing for war.
At the time, the South Koreans wanted a war to start. They were still convinced that they could retake the north and be reunited with their relatives. South Korea at the time, had one of the largest standing armies in the world, and from my own observation, were extremely well-trained and highly motivated. They were a great ally and formidable foe.
That crisis was averted but troops stationed at or near the DMZ were always on alert. It was not unusual for the North Koreans to lob some artillery shells towards the south. I do not know if the troops in South Korea responded in kind. But there were deaths, not daily like in Vietnam, but still as a result of hostile forces. I remember one day a lieutenant, who was inspecting the actual DMZ, was attacked by North Korean forces and within eyesight of fellow troops, was macheted to death. Those troops were obviously in a combat zone although I have never heard any recognition of their efforts by anyone, save this day when all veterans are recognized for their service.
I am intensely proud of my service. I was on active duty from February 1968 until November 1979. From November 1979 until April 1984 I served in the Massachusetts National Guard. I still have two of my uniforms, one summer and one winter, with their ribbons in tact. Over the past several years, upon request, I have worn my uniform to the elementary school where I have been teaching on the day they recognize Veterans Day.
As veterans, we all understood that at any moment we could be told to put our life on the line and we accepted this as part of the job. Although most of us experience regular work hours during our duty, most of us also experienced varying lengths of time when our work hours went on for days or weeks on end without end. We were happy to do it. We did not always want to do it, but that was irrelevant. We had to learn how to clean up out of our helmet, eat C and K rations, deal with lack of sleep, lack of comfort, the cold, loneliness, and constant alert that comes with such duty.
I always knew why I was doing it, although we often joked that we did not have a clue. I was always proud to be wearing the soldier’s uniform, and at the end of every day I was happy to be serving. If I could, I would do it all again in a heartbeat. Even though it was a job unlike any other, it was still a job and I knew it was my duty to see it through. It was an honor to have served, and I am thankful to my nation for having allowed me to serve.