West of Woolwich: What is a veteran?

Posted Wednesday, November 9, 2011 in Features

West of Woolwich: What is a veteran?

by Fred Kahrl

I was called today by a good friend, inviting me to Veterans’ recognition day activities at the Chop Point School. I was touched … deeply.

For the first time in the 40 years since I mustered out of the service, someone identified me as a “Veteran”. Forty years!

Why has it taken so long!

Probably because I served in the United States Coast Guard.

We “Coasties” are used to being treated with ambiguity by our fellow Americans. No one … including the Government … seems to know what to do with us. During my lifetime alone the USCG has been bumped and shunted around through at least three different federal departments.

Perhaps that is why some of us are sympathetic to those other “fringe” service men and women who aren’t invited to put on a garrison cap and march in the annual town parades.

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In 1954 my mother took a swing at being a Cub Scout Den Mother. Ever the teacher even between school assignments, she quickly realized that her pack of 10-year-old Scouts had all been born the year of the Normandy Landings that turned the tide of WW II in Europe.

So she got a 4x8 sheet of plywood and we spent the next two months of den meetings re-creating a Plaster of Paris diorama of the Allied landings on the French beaches. Somewhere there is a brown news clipping out of the Boston Globe when we won an award for the project … all of us lined up in uniform with our crewcuts and slicked back “Brillo” coifs … grinning widely into the blinding flashbulbs.

My father’s sabbatical was only for that year, so I never kept up with my fellow Cubs, but I will bet not one of them forgot about their connection to D-Day.

The smell of plaster, poster paint, and rubber “trees” takes me back in an instant. And, through all the ensuing years, I have read about D-Day every chance I got, and then about the wider war. And, after digesting all the grim heroism, it began to dawn on me that there were legions of support troops who were as important to the Allied victory as those who were ducking bullets on the front lines.

Of course most of us know about the doctors and nurses in their primitive surgeries, the exhausted and grimy flight mechanics who kept the bombers and fighters flying, the engineering companies ready to drop their shovels and hammers and pick up their rifles, the dauntless code-breakers sweating in their dank bunkers, the “agents provacateurs” parachuted at great personal peril behind enemy lines to assist the “underground fighters” … all of whom have since furnished the backstories and “extras” of countless war movies.

But you have to be a close reader of history to discover that it was Coast Guardsmen who drove the landing craft up onto the beaches of Normandy, Sicily, Guadacanal, etc., the only weapon in their hands a helm and throttle, surging through some of the most withering enemy fire of the War.

Somewhere else, buried in all that heroic prose, one or two war historians have paused to mention the important role played by the soldiers who moved only a few thousand yards behind the line of fire, providing hot meals, showers, dry bedrolls, mail and Red Cross packages from home, and semi-civilized latrines. And they had to be as ready to retreat as to advance. They are Veterans just as much as those whose medals include the Purple Heart.

And what about the Merchant Mariners who drove their ships across the widest oceans, defeating the enemy with a constant, unquenchable chain of supplies. Our nation lost more merchant vessels in WW II than warships. Do you look for the faces of these Veterans on Memorial Day?

Belatedly, our nation has begun to reach back and recognize some of our forgotten Veterans: the Navajo Code Talkers, the women who piloted warplanes to the edge of the theaters of war, the Black fighter pilots who shrugged of race discrimination to become some of America’s finest “Aces”.

But we who serve at home, behind the scenes, our missions invisible or misunderstood, while the TV cameras chase firefights and the deadly flight of attack choppers and fighter-bombers. Who, but for the families of our new generation of Merchant Mariners, knows that Military Sealift Command ships carrying all the fuel, ammunition and supplies to our Navy off foreign shores are crewed not by the Navy but by our civilian sailors.

How many of us know that Coast Guard reserves were called up to provide port security in Iraq, where they replaced their blue uniforms with camo, fending off insurgent attacks from their foxholes … their machine guns lighting up the night.

These are our hidden heroes, our invisible warriors whose only weapons are sometimes only a keyboard or even a pencil.

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I did my service during the Viet Nam War, so I meet the technical definition of being a Veteran, according government “regs”. The war was very far away from us living on an island in Alaska … no network TV, no daily newspapers, only Armed Forces Radio, and an intermittent cable TV that was only stale video cassettes sent by ship from Seattle.

Yet there were ways that we were touched by that war, even so.

When we picked up badly injured foreign fishermen in Dutch Harbor and flew them to the Anchorage hospital (2200 miles round trip), we would usually refuel at Elmendorf Air Force Base there before returning to Kodiak. Often we shared the “transit” ramp with the C-141’s bringing the wounded back to the U.S.

On warm summer evenings, the Air Force crews would open the tail doors of the big cargo jets while they refueled, and the walking wounded would make their painful way to the smoking area at the edge of the ramp. My aircrew would be there too, smoking their cigarettes and trying to make conversation. The soldiers would be smoking “grass” and would usually maintain a sullen silence.

No one of us … not even our “straightest” pilot … considered reporting them.

The interior of the “ambulance flight” was lined with rows and rows of stretchers, most filled with horribly wounded patients. The ambulatory passengers had been sitting for hours and hours on nylon webbing seats, and still had hours to go in their lumbering ambulance. At busy times, these flights were landing at and taking off from Elmendorf every 12 minutes.

After such an encounter, the flight back to Kodiak would usually be very quiet. We had witnessed the return of “real” Veterans.

We were “real” Veterans too, but most of our fellow Americans didn’t understand that … not even those we pulled out of the Bering Sea. But they were grateful, and perhaps that is enough.

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