Vail Daily column: Service to country
I drew laughter when I turned 18 and dutifully showed up to register for the draft.
“Son, we haven’t done that in years.”
I came of age in an interlude. A nation weary of war, particularly one widely viewed as corrupt, had ditched conscription for good. Perhaps wars of choice should run this way, although my father shakes his head. He thinks those making the choice should be doing the fighting, too.
The last thing my dad wanted was me going into the military. Even in peace. Not that he could stop me. And anyway, I’d grown up without him in a single-parent household in suburban L.A. Let’s just say I learned early to make my own decisions.
I flirted with signing up. Went with a friend to the Army recruiter. Took a Navy test and got what I took to be the usual propaganda about test scores placing me in their nuclear program if I wanted. Uh, huh.
Instead I stepped on a plane to Honolulu. No Army, no Navy. At least not yet. I needed to know my dad. My mother told me he had watched Pearl Harbor as a boy from the roof of his home. They thought at first it was a training exercise. Turned out to be his ticket to Lincoln, Nebraska, for the next several years. And active duty for his dad.
My father was drafted into the Korean War, unhappily. We have family fables about a great-great something or other who fought for the Confederates. Immigrant Irish relations had to have had someone in the Union. I have roots on both sides of the family predating the Revolutionary War. My most famous ancestor, Sir Isaac Brock, saved Canada from the United States in the war of 1812. He gave his life in the effort.
Me, I sailed and surfed and finally chased a girl to Santa Barbara before I was 21. She kept going. Too young to tend bar as I did in Waikiki, I fell in with the Forest Service as a seasonal firefighter.
The experience taught me I’d probably dodged a bullet. Not because I would have chafed like my dad at the whole military thing. Quite the opposite. I was good under fire, meshed well with the Vietnam vets on my crews, excelled in work more deadly at the time than the infantry. Loved it.
In short, I got all the good things in military service without the shooting, the gore, PTSD. Firefighting is about physics rather than killing people. There’s a pretty big difference.
I worked my way into what were called the special forces of wildland firefighting — moving from ground-pounder to squad boss to acting foreman on one of the five original hotshot crews. And then out, felled by a bad knee.
I do believe people in their early 20s benefit from service like this. Facing real danger. Working as a team with others from all walks of life. Bursting past what you thought were your limits. Having greater purpose than your still-childish self.
War forged the Greatest Generation but also those who survived the nightmare in ’Nam, mostly men who served honorably but came home to be more reviled than respected.
Today, we’re so far removed from war and the tiny percentage of veterans among us we don’t even bother with protests. Is that progress?
Do we need a return of the draft to make a point? To help our next generations understand better, pay attention more? Put leaders’ skin in the game through their sons and daughters, thereby thinking harder about wars of choice? If so, one of Vietnam’s greatest corruptions — the elite’s ability to protect its scions from conscription — would need fixing.
Our military forces are better, sharper, more motivated with voluntary service. I suspect more moral, too.
But compulsory service to country makes sense to me. Why do we have to wait until we’re old and rich to feel a call to give back? Seems there’s plenty that needs doing by the young and able for the collective good, and in so doing gain something important for themselves. Military and wildland firefighting might be the least of the possibilities here.
We’d be a better country for it.
Publisher Don Rogers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 970-748-2920.