Veterans Day is Nov. 11. I don’t really drink that much or smoke; however, Veterans Day is the one day a year where I pour myself a couple of fingers of bourbon, take a few puffs of a good cigar and try to remember the names that go with the faces of the many soldiers who passed briefly through my life during the Vietnam War.
I enlisted in January 1968 to be a combat photographer like my hero at the time, Robert Capa. After quitting my job, selling my car, saying goodbye to my mom at the bus station in Fort Dodge, Iowa, and reporting for duty at Fort Des Moines, I discovered the Army had other plans for me. The Tet offensive was in full swing, and they needed bodies (literally).
After eight weeks at Fort Bliss, Texas, learning how to kill people and blow up stuff and another eight weeks at Fort Huachuca in Arizona learning about the administrative minutiae that keeps the caissons rolling along, I expected to end up in Vietnam. I didn’t.
I remember clearly when they read the assignments on the last day of class at Huachuca: Vietnam, Vietnam, Vietnam, 94 times Vietnam. That’s where all of my buddies ended up. When they read my name, it was followed by Okinawa, United States Civil Administration of the Ryukyu Islands.
Okinawa was an interesting place in 1968. It was literally governed by the U.S. Army. There were no rules. It was the hub of pretty much all of the three-letter intelligence agencies operating in the Far East, as well as special operations personnel.
Among other things, my job included reading every message relating to Vietnam looking for anything of intelligence value. Some of those messages were tough to forget. A few contained the names of friends of mine who “went South” – that’s what they called a trip to Vietnam – and never returned. The details of how they met their end haunt me. I became used to losing friends. Life became easier if I just didn’t make that many.
When I think of Veterans Day, anyone who wore a uniform signed the same blank check worth up to and including their life if necessary to defend the United States. Like many others, I never was asked to cash that check.
I was a soldier once, sorta. My time was spent behind double-sealed doors in Sensitive Compartmented Information Facilities (SCIFs), often behind barbed-wire enclosures.
According to the Department of Defense, Veterans Day honors all of those who have served the country in war or peace — dead or alive — although it’s largely intended to thank living veterans for their sacrifices. On Veterans Day, I recognize the survivors who quietly sit at the VFW or American Legion bar who never brag about their Silver Stars, Bronze Stars, Purple Hearts, or other combat awards. They tend to be the quiet ones. Those kinds of vets tend not to tell the stories of how those medals were earned. They were really soldiers once.
What haunts me most are the faces of my friends who “went South” on some special ops mission never to return. They cashed that check for its full value. I wish I could remember their names. My Veterans Day bourbon and cigar are for them.
In retrospect, I probably wouldn’t be writing this column if I had become a combat photographer. Fate intervened. All I can do now is try to remember the names of those who were not as lucky.
Al Alborn is a political and social activist in Prince William County. His column appears every other week. You can learn more about Al at www.alborn.net.