It is a fact that only 5% of the U.S. population has served in the U.S. Armed Services. Many have enlisted for numerous reasons: a steady job, technical skill, the promise of a better life, money for college after active duty or just to see the world. No matter what the reason, wearing the uniform of the United States has been both a blessing and a curse. This is told from the view of one veteran. These have been my personal experiences and the experiences of others.
For me, enlisting in the Navy was an honor. I am a third generation Sailor. My grandfather proudly served in World War II, My uncle served in the Vietnam War and I have participated in the first Gulf War, the liberation of Kuwait and the protection of Saudi Arabia. I had always found it interesting that none of us served during peacetime. We have all been decorated Sailors with honorable service.
I can remember as a child the “sea stories” that my grandfather would share with me, his times in other countries and his experiences out at sea. They always intrigued me and held my interest. Somehow, I knew that this was also my path — duty to country. I remember the pride in my grandfather’s eyes when he would share his experiences with me. I wanted to see what he saw. I wanted experiences like these of my very own.
When I was twenty-two years old, the political scene was filled with the talk of war. Iraq had just invaded Kuwait, and then President George H.W. Bush was answering the call from the Saudis and the Kuwaitis for help. An international coalition was formed and before I knew it, my ship was deployed to the region. I had to say goodbye to my family, and I prayed that I would once again see them when this conflict was better under control. I can still remember seeing the lights fade from North Carolina as we steamed out into the Atlantic.
Serving in an active theater of operations is something that cannot be placed into words. How do you describe seeing people blown up because they had stepped on a land mine with fourteen pounds of TNT? How can you accurately put into words the death and carnage, or the crimes against humanity? War is not a pretty picture, and it changes you forever. The horrors that I have seen and experienced were surely not the experiences that my grandfather used to tell me about as a child.
The scenes of a broken people, people who have lost everything. Also, the captured prisoners who had little to eat and water to drink. That is when I was able to see that these men were just like me. They were sent on orders to do something that most didn’t want to do. They also had to leave their families and friends. Although I had traveled eight times zones and 10,000 miles, this was an extraordinary lesson to learn and experience. I had learned that although separated by a different culture, language, nationality and way of life, we had many similarities. That is something that I have carried with me ever since.
Months later, after I had returned home to a “Hero’s Welcome,” that is when the real war began.
I do not think that soldiers returning home from war believe that everything is going to be forgotten and life will just continue on like it was before they left. Marriages change, support for the military changes, events with children have been missed and the sacrifices of those who have served and given all become forgotten.
Wearing the uniform is a thankless job.
Remembering the fallen and those who had served twice a year is nice, but it is something that should be considered everyday. There are men and women who gave, who sacrificed their lives, whether that ended in death or even divorce, they have paid a price so that all within our boarders can live a life of freedom. What most do not realize is just how high that price is.
When veterans no longer wear the uniform, our service is forgotten. The waving flags, the hugs and pats on the back, the “thank you's”, the appreciation for service to country all become things of the past. The injuries suffered are not just physical, but also mental. Losing the respect and love of a family, spouse, children, even a nation, is a great weight to bear. Our nation’s heroes become burdens instead of people to embrace. Our veterans are discarded.
We truly live in the greatest nation on this planet, but that didn’t happen just because someone willed for it to happen. Generations of men and women have seen to our country’s survival. Most have been lost in the whispers of time.
My grandfather is at rest in a veteran cemetery in Ft. Indiantown Gap located in the mountains of Pennsylvania. He had served in a time when African Americans could only serve as cooks. A segregated Navy. No matter what he did, he served with great honor and pride. I visit his grave site when I can, and I sit there telling his memories, my “sea stories.” I share my experiences of when I was overseas, just as he did with me.
I am thankful for his honored and cherished service, just as I am for all of those who have served before me, while I was enlisted and after my service has ended. Every time I see our colors waving, I remember the sacrifice that I and many others had given. I think that everyone should remember that freedom is and has never been free. Consider the price that has been paid. Remember those who no longer wear the uniform.