Thompson: We are the veterans | VailDaily.com

Thompson: We are the veterans

Pete Thompson
Special to the Daily

Of today’s 327 million Americans, 18 million of us are veterans. We are the men and women, who years ago, in the prime of our young American life, put on a uniform and served on active duty in the armed forces of the United States: the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, or the Coast Guard.

According to the most recent U.S. Census estimates:

  • 389,292 remain of the 16 million who served in World War II (1941-1945)
  • 1,592,000 remain of the 5.7 million who served during the Korean War (1950-1953)
  • 6,251,000 of the 9 million who served during the Vietnam Era (1964-1975)
  • 2,300,000 of the 2.5 million who served Desert Shield/Desert Storm (1990-1991)
  • 4,800,000 served or are serving in the war on terror Iraq/Afghanistan (2001-today)
  • 2,400,000 served in peacetime between conflicts.
  • 17,778,000 Americans are veterans, or 5.4% of U.S. population

First, we went to basic and advanced individual training, where we learned to drill and march, to shoot and clean a rifle, and even how to low-crawl under barbed wire. Then we went to occupational training that we had chosen. We trained as infantrymen, firefighters, nurses, reporters, dog handlers, mechanics, or even as cybersecurity analysts. And we got paid.

That’s right, we got paid to learn computer skills, underwater salvage, geospatial imaging, surveying, and all sorts of medical skills. We built roads, bridges, schools, hospitals and runways. Some of us were trained and paid to be pilots, and others were sent back to college to study law, medicine, financial planning, and engineering. The military has 150 different occupations, and 800 different job titles. Which do you want?

I’m a veteran. I joined the military when I was a 19-year-old school kid. I remember getting on a Greyhound bus with 50 other young men and driving through the night to Fort Ord in California, all the while eating candy bars and smoking cigarettes in the back of the bus. The next morning, I was awakened by a man dressed in a Smokey Bear hat, who ordered all of us to get off the bus and “line up,” whatever that means. That’s when it began. That’s when they began changing me.

Within three days, my blue jeans, my candy bars, and all of my hair were gone. They gave me three ugly fatigue uniforms, two sheets, a smelly blanket, a bunk and a mop. It was hectic and confusing, but I could feel a focus on their part. They were trying to take us young fools to some “high ground.”

The Smokey Bear sergeants spoke loud and clear. They made us get up every morning at 5 dark-thirty, make our bed, clean our minds, and then “double-time” to training classes. They were going to make something noble out of our aimless youth.

Within a year, I was a corporal. I’d been from Fort Ord to Fort Lewis in Tacoma, Washington, to Fort Sill in Oklahoma. I’d learned a new language: “line-up, double-time, mess hall, grunt, Zulu time.” I’d learned the acronyms: NCO, CIB, FDC, M1, XO. I’d fired a bazooka, smelled tear gas, crawled under live fire, spit-shined boots, peeled potatoes, but I had also learned to stand up straight. Within that first year, I’d been trained, qualified, and paid as a first responder, a surveyor, a heavy equipment operator, a firefighter, and …..

And the journey was just beginning. I served six years in the U. S. Army, to include one year as a “live-fire” artillery NCO, one year as a combat advisor to the Republic of South Vietnam, two years as a squad and platoon leader, and six months at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland testing new and exotic weapons. I wasn’t a kid eating candy bars on the back of a bus anymore. The Army had promoted me into real-life experiences, with training, exercises, responsibilities, and teamwork. I had passed the tests and become a member of one of the greatest teams in the world: Army Strong, Be All You Can Be.

I’m now 74 years old and I still feel like I’m a member of the team. But now it’s “the veteran team,” not the “active-duty” team. We’re the old guard. We came back and went to college on the GI Bill and started businesses. Of today’s 18 million veterans, there are currently 2.5 million veteran-owned businesses. Two hundred and nineteen of us became astronauts. Twenty-six of us became presidents. And we still make our bed every morning before the coffee, and we still stand up straight.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, during our post-military civilian careers, we veterans earned 14% more income than an average American citizen. I wonder why? 70% of us voted in the last election, while only 60% of nonveterans voted. Why is that?

And, despite occupational hazards, veterans, especially long-serving veterans, live longer than their nonveteran civilian counterparts. Wait a minute. We earn more. We vote more. We live longer. And we got paid to go on the most exciting life-changing ride of our lives, in helicopters, submarines, aircraft carriers, etc. all over the world, and all while serving for a mission greater than ourselves. Why doesn’t everyone serve? It must be one of the best kept secrets in the world.

“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers …. we veterans.” 

Pete Thompson is a local veteran who teaches for Vail Resorts and Colorado Mountain College.