Today, I’ve seen dozens of Facebook posts, and tweets about veterans day. Many of these posts use words such as bravery, honor, dedication, sacrifice and patriotism. They are the words that try to describe the the actions of our military vets.
It’s impossible to describe the the sensation of combat to somebody who has not experienced it. As a result, often there is no attempt at all to describe the experiences of american service members in combat. For many their baptism by fire was such a horrifying experience that they wish to never speak of it again. Unfortunately this does not allow many of us to truly comprehend and appreciate the nature of what they survived. The horrors of combat are all to often described in a wide reaching narrative, rarely is combat described in the small scale, and personal nature that we need to hear about. Imagine what it would be like if you had been in their boots at the moment that would forever change their lives.
You are there in the trenches of France when you hear incoming German artillery. As the rounds impact all around you, the earth shattering explosions you had expected do not happen. To your sudden horror the rounds impact with a thud and a hiss, you realize that instead of high explosives, the Germans have fired mustard gas at you. There’s no time to think, you must put on your gas mask before the vapors destroy your lungs.
Imagine the final moments aboard a landing craft as it heads toward the beach at Normandy or Tarawa. You are huddled aboard the craft with dozens of your brothers in arms. Artillery shells splash the water around you. Aboard the craft guys are puking, some from sea sickness, some from fear. The Coxswain announces 10 seconds to landing, you face forward toward the bow ramp, and the most important moments of your life. A machine gunner defending the beach has zeroed in on your landing craft. The only sounds you hear are your heartbeat, and the rounds bouncing off that bow ramp. The craft comes to a halt in shallow water, the machine gunners deadly aim has your craft pegged, the rounds are still bouncing off the ramp when suddenly the bow ramp crashes down exposing you to a hail of bullets.
You are one of the pathetically under equipped Marines at the Chosin Reservoir. The temperature has been well below freezing the whole time. Your toes went numb two days ago and you can no longer feel them, they are probably frostbitten. Suddenly you hear the whistles and screams as Chinese communist soldiers rush at you. They number in the tens of thousands, you realize there are more Chinese soldiers then there are bullets to kill them. The Chinese rush at you from all sides, you are surrounded, there is no escape. The enemy gets closer, and closer. Your rifle at the ready, your eye focusing on the front sight, a Human being that wants you dead, comes into view. Your front sight drops slightly until it’s on his center mass. Your finger pulls back ever so slightly.
It seems like a lifetime ago when the alarm for general quarters was sounded. In reality it was only a couple minutes ago, time seems to pass so slowly when you are this vulnerable. Everybody is scanning the skies, enemy planes are inbound. Suddenly the ships defensive weapons roar to life as the enemy approaches. Everywhere you look there is flak, and tracer rounds trying to chase planes out of the sky. Suddenly from out of nowhere your eyes lock on an incoming aircraft heading straight for your gun crew. Everyone on the crew is fighting faster, and harder than they ever have before. The gun crew is functioning on the brink of panic firing the anti-aircraft weapon, human voices furiously screaming in desperation. The Japanese plane is so close you can see the pilots eyes, it’s too late to run for safety. The aircraft must be destroyed before it reaches you, the the Japanese aviator that you are trying to kill is a Kamikaze pilot.
You are standing behind a machine gun mounted aboard a Humvee. The task force that you are attached to has been given the mission of spearheading the invasion from Saudi Arabia into Kuwait. While going with the column through a breached minefield , there is a small explosion. Your Humvee is enveloped into a thin cloud of smoke. Somehow in spite of all the vehicles that went before you, it’s the front tire of your Humvee that detonates a toe popper mine. The tire is destroyed but the vehicle is still functional. You continue on with your platoon of Recon marines as they split off from the main column to protect the task forces flanks from a counterattack. The task force has come to a halt as the engineers prepare their charges to breech a second minefield. While they work you are exposed to enemy fire, and there is no cover available anywhere. Incoming mortar fire explodes to your left. The next rounds explode closer to your right, then again, closer to your left. The Iraqi soldiers firing the mortars have the range on you, now they are bracketing your position. The next round may bring with them the last moments for you, the explosions are getting closer, there is nowhere to hide.
American soldiers are trapped on a hilltop, the NVA has surrounded them with hundreds of troops hidden in the thick brush of the Vietnamese jungle. Army gunships and Air Force jets are trying to provide close air support. Some of the soldiers are wounded, the situation is beginning to look bleak. Your Helicopter is approaching the stranded soldiers on that hilltop. In the distance you can see that the clearing on the hill top is barely large enough to land in ideal conditions, these are definitely not ideal conditions. Attack aircraft continue to sweep in dropping bombs, and rockets to loosen the grip that the NVA has on that hilltop. Enemy infantry are mere yards away from your landing spot. Only a fool would land his chopper on that hill. You’re not a fool, you’re piloting a Medevac helicopter, and you promised those soldiers that you would pluck them off that perch. The only thing between you and the bullets of the NVA riflemen is the glass and aluminum skin of your chopper. It’s too late to turn back now, you’re on the final approach.
These are the moments that make Americas veterans so remarkable. They are the moment the spell certain death and yet so many survived to to tell their tales. If you thank a service member or veteran for their service, I hope that now maybe you have a concept of what you are really thanking them for.
Happy Veterans Day.