Thompson: We are the veterans, ‘we few, we happy few, we band of brothers’
Of today’s 326 million Americans, about 18.5 million of us are veterans. We are the men and women who, years ago, in the prime of our young American lives, put on a uniform and served on active duty in the armed forces of the United States.
• 768,000 remain from the 16 million who served in World War II.
• 1.6 million remain from the 5.7 million who served during the Korean conflict.
• 6.7 million remain from the 9 million who served during the Vietnam era.
• 2.3 million remain from the 2.5 million who served in Desert Shield-Desert Storm.
• 4.8 million served or are serving in the war on terror in Iraq and Afghanistan.
• 2.4 million served in peacetime between conflicts.
We were young, young people who got a haircut, put on a uniform and gave two or more of our formative years to the military — the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines or the Coast Guard.
First, we went to Basic Training and then Advanced Individual Training and then several levels of Occupational Training. We learned to drill and march; we learned to shoot and clean a rifle. We learned to crawl through mud under barbed wire, but we also learned some excellent occupational skills.
Today’s military has more than 190 listed occupations. So, besides basic combat skills, we also learned at least one or two skills that we could use when we left the military. Some of us learned computer skills, some learned to build roads, bridges, schools and hospitals. Some became nurses or policemen; some became B-52 pilots or radio specialists. Some of us got paid to go back to school to become lawyers, doctors, accountants, etc. Twenty-six of us became presidents.
I’m a veteran. I joined the military when I was 19 years old. I remember getting on a Greyhound bus with 50 other dumb young men and driving through the night to Fort Ord, eating candy bars and smoking cigarettes (yes, dumb). The next morning, I was awakened by a man dressed with a Smokey the Bear hat, who ordered me and my companions to get off the bus and “line up,” whatever that means. Then it began. Then 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 green uniforms, two sheets and a smelly blanket, a bunk and a mop. It was a bit confusing with all those Smokey Bear people yelling at me, making me do push-ups, getting me up every morning at 5:30 and “double-timing” to training classes all day and into the night. But I had 50 new friends, and we bonded and supported one another.
Within a year, I was a corporal. I’d been from Fort Ord to Fort Lewis to Fort Sill. I’d learned a new language: line up, double-time, mess hall, grunt, roger, Zulu time and all the acronyms: NCO, CIB, FDC, M1, XO. I’d fired a bazooka, smelled tear gas, crawled under live fire, spit-shined boots, peeled potatoes and learned to stand up and look straight, on time. I’d been trained and qualified as a first responder, a surveyor, a heavy equipment operator, a firefighter and …
And this journey was just beginning. I served six years in the U. S. Army, to include one year as an artillery training NCO, one year as an advisor to the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam, two years as a commander and six months at Aberdeen Proving Ground testing exotic weapons. I wasn’t a kid eating candy bars on the back of a bus anymore. The Army had guided 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.
Now I’m 72 years old. I’m one of the veterans who, according to the Census Bureau, earned an annual median income of $40,076, while the average citizen earned $35,365. Seventy percent of us voted in the last election, while only 60 percent of nonveterans voted. Is that because of our service and because of the oath we took?
Every veteran at one time stood before a government official and took the oath: “To support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” That oath is the single element that ties all Veterans together. And this Constitution is the supreme law of the land. It defines our government, our laws and obligations, our rights and freedoms.
I sometimes wonder if, all those many years ago, when we took that oath, I wonder if we really understood the Constitution and the relationship of that oath to our freedoms. But today, living in this wonderful country and knowing that girls can go to school, men can own rifles and go hunting, women can drive cars and I can eat candy bars, or not — today, yes, we veterans know the relationship of that oath to these freedoms.
“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers. … We are the veterans.”
Pete Thompson is the vice commander of the Minturn Mount of the Holy Cross VFW Post 10721. You can reach him at email@example.com.