Thompson: We are the veterans |

Thompson: We are the veterans

Pete Thompson
Valley Voices

Of today’s 254 million American adults, 17 million of us are veterans. We are the men and women, who in the prime of our young American lives, became part of something much bigger than ourselves. We put on a uniform and served in the armed forces of the United States — the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, or the Coast Guard.

Some numbers to consider:

  • 380,327 remain of the 16 million who served in World War II (1941-1945)
  • 1,156,096 remain of the 5.7 million who served during the Korean War (1950-1953)
  • 6,192,877 remain of the 9 million who served during the Vietnam Era (1964-1975)
  • 3,834,993 remain of the 4 million who served in Desert Shield and Desert Storm (1990-1991)
  • 3,772,708 served or are serving in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (2001-today)
  • 2,081,350 served in peacetime between conflicts
  • 17,418,000 Americans are veterans

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, for occupations that we had chosen. We trained as infantrymen, firefighters, nurses, engineers, 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 imagining, surveying, and many medical skills. We built roads, bridges, schools, hospitals, and runways. Some of us trained as pilots, while others went to college to study law, medicine, finances, and engineering. The military has 150 different occupations, and 800 different job titles. Which do you want?

I am 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, 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 the Bear hat who ordered all of us to get off the bus and “line up.” That’s when it began.

That’s when the military began changing me.

Within three days, my blue jeans, my candy bars, and all 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 had been from Ft. Ord to Ft. Lewis to Ft. Sill. I had learned a new language: “line-up, double-time, mess hall, grunt, Zulu time.” I had learned the acronyms: NCO, CIB, FDC, M1, XO. I had fired a bazooka, smelled tear gas, crawled under live fire, spit-shined boots, peeled potatoes. I 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 more.

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 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. “Be All You Can Be” was no longer a slogan. It was a way of life.

I’m now 75 years old and I still feel like I’m a member of that incredible 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 17 million veterans, there are currently 2.5 million veteran-owned businesses. Two hundred and 19 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 Census Bureau, during our post-military civilian careers, we veterans earned 14% more income than an average American citizen. Some 78% of us voted in the last election, while only 55% of nonveterans voted. 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, all while serving 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.

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