Living History – Veterans’ Day Reflections
This time of year brings the annual round of holiday dinners, get-togethers, parties and the like. For this writer, the first of these is the ‘Old Detroit Light Guard’ dinner for alumni of the now-disbanded 225th Infantry of the Michigan National Guard. The keynote speaker this year was a World War II veteran of both the European and Pacific theaters – a rare feat. As he told us, every soldier has a story; what follows is mine.
With 27 years of active and reserve service coming to an end seven years ago last November 11th, I’ve had time to reflect on a number of things related to serving in uniform, such as, why people chose to take the oath and serve? The reasons are as doubtless as varied as the patterns of their digital camouflage. For me, the decision to enlist was made over 30 years ago, when I volunteered to join the Army during the time of America’s confrontation with the Soviet Union and Iran. Everything else flows from that decision.
What made me join then was patriotism. What would have impelled me to join, sooner or later, was economics. Detroit in 1980 was not bursting with opportunities, as some may recall. I have to believe that 20% unemployment would have been a great motivator had patriotism failed. Patriotism wouldn’t have failed, however. Or perhaps I use the wrong word. I’ll explain: My father, older brother, and all four uncles served. Two uncles saw action in France and rarely spoke about it, so far as I know. But, I knew that they’d been over there. I knew about Dad’s Korean War service, and heard the stories over and over, growing up. (It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized that almost none of them concerned what he saw in his MASH unit; they were usually about funny incidents in basic training or the like. My older brother joined straight out of high school, as did I, and I would be followed by our younger brother. You could say that wearing the uniform was the family business; I knew something of the trade before leaving grade school, not from handling weapon, et cetera, but in a more cultural way: The Army-Navy Game, how to tell what rank an insignia stood for, all grades and services, from memory, who the heroes were, what battles they fought, and all the other things that furnish the mind of a future soldier. Without consciously doing it, I’d been training for a career in uniform from earliest childhood. The Army even has a term for this type of enculturation; veterans, who, mostly unwittingly, induce their younger relations to enlist through repetition of war stories and the like, are termed “invisible recruiters.” (There is even concern that bad experiences at the VA may cause a reverse effect, by giving invisible recruiters the wrong sort of stories to tell about their experiences, in and out of uniform.) And that “invisible recruiter” thing works – my oldest daughter enlisted in 2005, right out of high school. She told me that she wanted to because I did. In my case, she knows that the Army is the reason for my having gone to college, for being physically fit, and that being in uniform kept me from ending up on the street, literally, as my family briefly did during the depression of the early ‘80s. (If I had to do it all over again, I’d still join, because of the many good things that have happened to me because of that decision.)
After staying in so long, for a variety of factors, my decision, when the mobilization order came down to my National Guard unit, was made for me. Not, however, before fate intervened to keep me in uniform a few years longer than expected.
“Good.” That’s the last word I ever heard my father speak, before a tracheotomy tube and a final downward spiral took first his voice and then the rest of him from us. He said it when I told him, while visiting him at hospital bedside after a National Guard drill, that I’d put in for retirement. This was the second time I’d done so; the first ended abortively when my retirement request arrived the same day as our last mobilization order. The Battalion Commander offered to push my request through, since I’d send it in ignorance of the order to mobilize. I declined. As it turned out, the manning requirement for that mission was reduced, and I was dropped from the roster of those to be sent overseas.
This time, with the detachment we’d deployed to Iraq home, minus one of the company who’d bid us farewell but would never see his homecoming, my wife and I talked it over and decided that this was the time. So, once again I drafted my retirement request and mailed it in.
My father never saw me in uniform again. That time by his bedside, in camouflage, on my was home from drill, was the last his eyes beheld his son in camouflage. But I was in uniform again, dress uniform, to bid him farewell two months after. My unit, the 182nd Field Artillery, sent a funeral detail to do his memory full military honors, as was his right as a Korean War veteran. They performed with the crisp flawlessness of long practice, in a moving ceremony. Each of them, known to me, in some instances for over a decade, expressed condolences in a heartfelt but subdued manner, fit for our friendships as for the occasion. After they finished folding the flag, the funeral detail NCOIC, an old friend. stood in front of my older brother, himself a 100% disabled veteran who would himself be resting under another flag in a little over two years, and intoned, in a voice cracking with emotion, the closing words, “On behalf of a grateful nation…” Outside, three rounds of gunfire, the seven individual shots sounding like one each time, and it was done. I invited the detail to the reception; they declined, as their next funeral was a ways away. It was for the first cousin of one of the marksmen, and a 19 year old widow was waiting for her flag.
Without being able to put it into a more rational form, I’ll just say that there was no way in hell that I could leave, not just then. So, four days short of being officially retired, I had them tear up the paperwork
James Webb, in ‘Fields of Fire,’ describes one of his two principal protagonists as, “an American samurai,” who’d been bred to war. The character, Robert E. Lee Hodges, Jr., was the son of a World War II vet killed in combat before he was born. His line stretched back to the Revolution, and his extended family was full of soldiers, many KIA, as he learned at his Grandmother’s knee. As Webb wrote, “He believed in God, but he believed in the Ghosts more.” Young Hodges was raised on stories of long-dead Hodges men who’s braved fields of fire, whenever their country called. Indeed, they’d sought danger out, not waiting for the call to the colors.
In between putting aside the novelist to assume the Senator, James Webb became a scholar. His Born Fighting: A History of the Scots-Irish in America has as its thesis that the Scots-Irish, borderland Scots who count William Wallace among their own, are disposed by culture, habit, circumstance and experience to favor the warrior’s life. Just as business acumen seems to follow the Chinese Diaspora around the world, as it does the Dutch and Armenian expatriate, so does soldiering come naturally to the NASCAR Dads we heard so much about during recent elections.
My own roots are mainly Scots-Irish and working-class Detroit, with a family that came north during the 1920s from West Virginia. I’ve spent many evenings with my cousins, and inevitably talk turns to their father, who spent 2 1/2 years in continuous combat during World War II in New Guinea, perhaps the worst place to experience war. Sherman was right, but even Hell may be divided into planes, and one of the lowest would be equatorial New Guinea, uncharted territory filled with disease, headhunters, cannibals and a skilled and implacable enemy. He was a POW; this did not deter him from re-enlisting, after his release, to make Sergeant. Other members of the clan, some never met by any in the room, will be conjured up and their service remembered. What they did after the war is almost an afterthought.
These thoughts about serving mixed with others accompanying my decision to retire. Memories of the old man, at least 80 years of age, out on a Sunday morning that last September in uniform (2007), his black suit hanging loosely on his frame as he knelt to place flowers by a graveside on a Sunday morning, who, at the sight of our Humvees coming by in convoy, stood at attention and rendered a sharp hand salute as the wind played with the wisps of his snow-white hair, make me thing that they must have something in common with many others who put the uniform on. I hope that sharing them helps to identify some reasons who the ranks continue to fill, no matter the cause or the party in power.
In closing, my decision to serve was thrice made: Once when I enlisted, once at my father’s funeral when I chose to stay in uniform, and once before I was born, by the example of family that brought me into the world. As the last-mention preceded the others, I give it precedence in claiming my service, and by extension offer it as an example of why others of similar origin put on the uniform and accept whatever follows from choosing to do so. (I’m sure that my son would tell you the same thing, if you asked him why he joined the Air Force, just out of high school…married now to a fellow veteran, they raise my grandson in a world filled with uniforms, and perhaps, to a life wearing one himself someday.)
All gave some; on Memorial Day, we remember that some gave all.
-SFC (Ret) Lloyd A. Conway
-SFC (Ret) Lloyd A. Conway
1981: Basic Training, 1st Infantry Training Brigade, Ft. Benning, GA
1981-8: 1/4th Infantry Bn., Warriors, 3rd Infantry Division, Rock of the Marne Aschaffenburg, West Germany
1983-4: 1/66 Armor Bn, Iron Knights, 2nd Armored Division, Hell on Wheels, Ft. Hood, TX
1985-91: 225th Infantry, Detroit Light Guard, Detroit, MI
1991-3: 125th Infantry, Yield to None, Detroit, MI
1993-5: Recruiting Command, Michigan National Guard, Oak Park, MI
1995-2007: 182nd Field Artillery, Might if Right, Detroit, MI