Those of you who have military connections will recognize the photo of a Service Flag. The star represents someone whom you know you is serving in the military. I purchased ours when my nephew graduated from Marine Boot Camp in San Diego a few years ago. It has hung in our window since. Today, I can take it down. My nephew leaves the Marines today, to return to civilian life.
I cannot claim that our family has a strong military tradition. One branch slipped out of Prussia in 1880’s rather than be conscripted into the army or placed in a concentration camp. My grandfather joined the cavalry at the end of WWI, but I do not believe that he left the USA. My father completed college ROTC then served in the Navy as an engineer on an aircraft carrier during the Korean War. My aunt enjoyed the military enough to stay for 22 years in the Army Medical Specialist Corp. My brother and I came of age after Vietnam, during the Cold War, while Iran held hostages, but before Iraq invaded Kuwait. “My Generation” was not much into national service.
I had a couple of interactions with the military during college. When the Selective Service sent me my registration card, I fulfilled my duty to fill it out. But, I wrote “CO” (conscience objector) around the boarder. I do not know whether this came to light when I considered following my aunt’s footstep to join the AMSC, upon graduation with my occupational therapy degree. The recruiting officer looked somewhat skeptically toward me and asked what I would do if a sniper were attacking my unit. I clarified that I was applying to be an OT, who rarely are near combat regions. He wanted an answer. I told him that I would carefully shoot him in the leg or arm to disarm him and take him captive as a POW. Not the answer he wanted. I did get through the physical, but when the Army psychologist interviewed me, my opinions about homosexuality did not fly either: Why should we limit dedicated citizens from serving their country just because of their sexual preference? Better pursue a different employer…
I am sure that my nephew has some good stories about joining the Marines. According the pieces that I know, he acted consistently with is outlook on life: supporting a friend. I do not recall any prior discussions about the military as either a career choice or ambitions from younger days. He was fascinated by battle and adventure video games and sword fighting. He had started and stopped college a few times, and followed this pattern with work opportunities. Then a friend suggested that they would join the Marines. Why not!? My nephew signed up, only to find out that the larger plan of his friend was to get a reduced sentence for a legal issue, if the judge saw that he had signed up to serve his country. Well, I understand that the friend served his time, but not in the Marines. My nephew served his commitment, which is the longest that he has stayed with any interest, except maybe fishing. I commend him for this.
Even before I had my brush with the military, I had considered the larger concept of whether citizen should have an obligation to serve their country. Obviously, I had some ambivalence about war, but I thought that there were plenty of other tasks that would benefit our society. Why should I and other youths just get a free ride? Having started, then dropped out of college, I also observed that few high school graduates actually had any idea of what they wanted to learn in college. Would not the ages from 18 to 20 be ideal to learn useful community skills, then return to education with more focus and greater purpose? We now know that the frontal lobes of the brain, where we make decisions, do not mature until between 20 to 25 years of age. Knowledge without judgment. Of course, it did not occur to me to follow my cousin’s example to join the Peace Corp. I still think that National Service for all youth, whether military or humanitarian, would be a good idea. In our current political climate, I doubt we could get such a program going (I actually had a conversation with a 30-something person who did not know what the CCC was… hmmm.)
Even before my nephew followed his friends steps into the Marines, I had sensed his warrior inclinations. After his mother died six months after he graduated from high school, I, trying to figure out how to mourn and help my family mourn, wrote a series of short stories. My nephew’s was the first that I wrote. He was into The Lord of the Rings movies, so I played with the medieval-Tolkien style prose (though I probably came off sounding more like C. S. Lewis). This is the where the Hermit originated. The story was about the Hermit West of the Virgin, sending condolence to his nephew (I later wrote other stories about the Hermit to my other nephew and brother), and sending a gift which would he would use in life. I sent to my nephew the fencing foil that I had learned sword skills with in high school. He would be the warrior, seeking adventure in the world. He has certainly fulfilled this prophecy.
But, engaging in war is not a story, nor a video game. People die. They do not get new energy, wealth, or a chance to reboot the game. The experiences that soldier have will be with them for the rest of their lives. Other experiences and conscious efforts can contain the horrors of war, but not erase them. Maybe I live in a world of secure ignorance, but I see my friends who have had military duty, especially combat tours, and I see their world of suspicion, where unidentified pedestrians and vehicles are targets and in which concealed weapons permits are a comfort. More forcefully than I, my mother summed up this view in a letter to the editor published recently in the San Jose Mercury News. I leave this as my tribute to my nephew.
You wonder why our young people in the military commit suicide and go berserk and kill Afghan citizens? Our grandson, during his seven months in Afghanistan, was with his sergeant when the sergeant stepped on a land mine and his legs were blown off. He couldn’t stop the bleeding, and he died. Our grandson will live with that the rest of his life. Thank you Mr. President, the Congress and top commanders for the legacy you have given our young people in the military. We are just throwing our young people to the fodder while the U.S. is trying to “paint” a portrait of success for NATO allies and the American people. I’m one of those American people. We didn’t win Vietnam. We wont’ win in Afghanistan. Bring the troops home now.
My nephew completes his duty with the rituals for honoral discharge. He will head home with a few days along the road for himself. He is considering taking some college courses this summer, a fishing trip with his grandmother, and then a road trip in a few months. Maybe he will visit this old hermit, and I can salute him, shake his hand, and embrace him, like Yoda greeting Luke Skywalker after a successful mission. I will work on the raised eye brow and wiggling ear thing.