Al newspaper

It feels like I’m back on Okinawa.  

It’s Sunday morning.  I’m looking at photos on the front page of the Washington Post of the 13 soldiers who died at the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan. Every time I read about the death of a U.S. service member, the same thought crosses my mind: “topless waitresses and midget bartenders.”  

I know this idea is politically incorrect in 2021; however, it was OK in 1968.  I had just arrived on Okinawa to replace Tony, a specialist supporting a logistical operation devoted to keeping the troops in Vietnam well supplied.  Tony was a “short-timer” counting the days until he got out of the Army.  All he talked about was his dream: opening a bar in Philadelphia that would specialize in topless waitresses and midget bartenders.  In the context of the times, it sounded like a good idea.  

George was another short-timer.  His dream was to buy a Pontiac TransAm and open it up on Ohio’s interstate.

Every soldier, sailor, airman and Marine has a dream of what their life will be like when they get out.  When we send our youth to fight wars, those dreams are often interrupted on a far away battlefield.  

Some of us were lucky.  We served in jobs that kept us out of harm’s way.  We could keep dreaming until the day we were discharged and maybe even fulfill those dreams.  Tony, George and I were among the lucky ones.  A lot of other folks shared their dreams at the NCO club on Okinawa.  They were just passing through.   As I listened to their stories, I started to wonder whether they would have the chance to live their dreams.  

Every morning and evening, I walked by the mortuary.  Military-issue steel coffins were always stacked outside.  Some days there were none, other days a few, and other days huge stacks gleaming in the sun.  

I would then sit at my desk with a cup of coffee reading the Stars and Stripes and reviewing the day’s message traffic. One of my jobs was to read every message sent in the Far East to look for intelligence. I started to connect the meaningless numbers of casualties to those stacks of coffins, and wondered how many people I might have shared a beer with at the club who might be heading home in them.  I walked by those coffins every day for three years and kept reading those messages.  

Every now and then, a message was a recommendation for a Bronze Star for valor or a Silver Star or something higher for bravery in battle.  Most were posthumous.  Once in a while, a familiar name would appear.  I started quietly saluting those boxes as I walked by, wondering whether I was saluting a friend. 

It feels like I’m back on Okinawa. I’m sitting at my desk with a cup of coffee reading about the 13 who died at the airport in Kabul. I wonder what their dreams were? I wonder how the people who shared those dreams are doing?  I wonder how the future changed because they were sent to Kabul for that dangerous mission? I think the same thing every time I read about another service member’s death.

The faces of those who passed through my life so many years ago haunt me. The stories of those who die for their country bring back those memories. One of the prices we pay in war is interrupting dreams. Perhaps we should think carefully before we interrupt those dreams in the future.   

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 and LinkedIn.

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