Today we Americans observe veterans day, it’s a day for our nation to stop for a moment and thank those who served in peacetime and war. Veterans day is an observance of sacrifice by others that is done not by sacrifice on our part, but by rewarding ourselves with a day off. The imagery is always the same, flags uniforms, and parades. The reality behind this holiday is one of deep emotion.
During the month of August 1990, Iraq had invaded Kuwait and threatened to invade Saudi Arabia. Americas response was to send massive numbers of men, women and materials to counter the hostile actions of Saddam Husseins military. Operation Desert Storm was to be a war fought on a massive scale. The scope of the military effort was huge but the story of every participant was small, and intensely personal. The build up to war had progressed for weeks as I wondered if my Marine reserve unit would be activated. It would put me and my fellow Marines onto the center stage of the biggest show on earth. Rumors swirled for weeks as to whether or not we would be deployed. This was a time when some peacetime superheroes turned into whipped dogs and quickly sought to get out of military service by any means necessary. Others who seemed like quiet book worms turned into steel spined warriors. The call finally came and my unit was to be activated. The Marines of Delta Company 4th Reconnaissance battalion were heading to war.
Veterans day for me happened on the Monday night following Thanksgiving weekend in 1990. A few short days prior I had received the orders to report to my unit in New Mexico. I had only a short time to say my farewells to family and friends. There was much bravado amongst my friends about becoming a war hero, and some dark jokes about coming home in a wheelchair. We all laughed even at these jokes but there was an unspoken fear of the unknown. No matter how much my friends joked about it the possibility of things going terribly wrong for me was now getting all too real. I set about the task of putting my affairs in order. Please understand that I never felt an overwhelming sensation of doom, but the possibility of getting killed could not be ignored and it had to be faced head on. This is a situation unique to those who work in an arena where the actions of man, or acts of nature place them at deaths door. I didn’t have enough money to need a last will, I simply signed my pickup truck into my parents possession and gave my extremely modest collection of playboy magazines to the trash collector. All affairs at home were in order and it was time to report to my unit. My parents drove me to the airport and waited with me until I had to board the flight. This is where the war became real for me. My dad put on a brave face, he told me to keep my butt down and not to be a hero. My mother however showed a torrent of emotion, she tried so damn hard not to cry. she kept saying over and over “I can’t believe this is happening” she fought back tears and demanded that I come home safe as soon as possible. I promised her I would. Seeing my mother in that state is what made me realize how large of a sacrifice is borne by the loved ones of service members. I had chosen to enlist in the Marines and go to war if necessary. My mother had not chosen this for me. She had wished for me, a long peaceful life and hopefully a bunch of grandchildren. I was heading off for the grand adventure of combat in a faraway land, but my parents were paying the the real price for my choice. The time spent waiting for the final boarding call seemed like an eternity to me, for my mom and dad, minutes probably passed like seconds. It was time to leave.
That night I left the Hogan family behind and joined my other family, the disturbed and comical misfits of 3rd platoon. When Iraq crossed the Kuwait border, the Iraqi army was the 4th largest military in the world. They were reasonably well trained and well equipped, they were a force that demanded some respect. To this day I am convinced that America only needed to 3rd platoon to win the war. Such was the demented confidence of that group heading to the mideast and I loved them for it. I have never laughed harder or lived life fuller than when I was in the presence of those Marines.
The Marines of 3rd platoon and the rest of Delta company had no patience for diplomatic negotiations. We wanted to fight! If not to prove ourselves, at the very least to get the job done ASAP, and get out of that Godforsaken desert in which we found ourselves. We were a confident bunch but we frequently spoke of what might happen to us. I remember looking at my friends faces and wondering if they would all make it home ok. I made pacts with some friends regarding what to do on each others behalf if we should be killed. I remember praying to god to get me home, then suddenly realizing that my prayers needed to more specific. “please God, let me get through this and let me get home alive and in one piece, not in a casket”. Should I write a final letter home to say goodbye in case I get killed or is that too much of a jinx? A war makes you think of things like that. Slowly and inevitably the war and our role in approached, the fight was on.
I could write dozens of pages about what it was like when me and my friends finally went into combat. The experiences were intense and will always be part of who I am now but that’s not what I intended to write about. I want you to know about the moments and emotions that occur when young men and women stop being average Americans and become veterans. I want you to appreciate even more the sacrifice made by the those that the veterans leave behind.
The final boarding call was announced, I hugged and kissed my mother and shook my fathers hand. I grabbed my gear, turned and walked down the jetway to the aircraft. Just before I reached the aircraft door I turned one last time to see my parents. My father had put his arm around my mother who was now openly sobbing. He was leading her out of the airport. I timidly waved goodbye even though I knew they did not see me. That was my veterans day.
Veterans day is not about the parades, banners, and speeches. It is about the price that some people pay, and the burden that others carry. I saw the burden that my parents carried that night at LAX terminal 1, gate 7.