Jack is maybe one of the bravest people I never met. Jack's father was a veteran in World War II. When he returned to the United States after the war, he became a coal miner and later died of Black Lung. Jack's family was not wealthy and there were few options for him. As many people do in his circumstances, he volunteered for the United States Army.
The war in Vietnam was just beginning to ramp up, and Jack was sent there almost immediately.
While Jack was in Vietnam, his unit came under an ambush. Several men were killed almost instantly. Others scrambled to take cover from the enemy attack. Jack left his position of relative safety and ran into the line of enemy fire to retrieve a radio carried by an officer who had been killed in the ambush. With that radio, Jack called in air support that very likely saved the lives of himself and the other survivors.
One day, Jack's mother received word that her son was missing. In all likelihood, she was told, he was killed. There would be no flag-draped coffin coming home -- just the flag.
Months went by. The war in Vietnam progressively got worse. Many families had IGTNT moments of their own. But finally, happily, Jack's mother got a different kind of news. Jack was alive -- missing no longer.
I don't know what happened to Jack during those months he was missing in the jungle of Vietnam. I don't know what he went through, what he had to endure, or what he had to do to survive. But when he returned from the war, he was fundamentally changed.
Jack experienced classic indications of shell shock. He was irritable and moody. He would flee into his back yard and hide under brush to evade "Charlie". He relived Vietnam every day. To dull his pain, he diluted it with cheap alcohol.
On the physical side, he carried a bullet in his hip, shrapnel in his lower left leg, and he began to exhibit ill health effects common in those who were exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam. The military reviewed his case and judged him not to be disabled (and thus not eligible for certain benefits). Despite his non-disabled status, Jack had difficulty finding or keeping employment. Meanwhile, his son was born with profound low vision and heart defects.
The combination of his difficult experiences in Vietnam and the harsh realities of his post-Vietnam life took a toll. Jack's behavior grew more erratic and he relied more on alcohol. His wife believed that he was a danger to his children and eventually divorced him. He moved around, and for quite some time he lived in a storage shed in a relative's back yard.
When people criticized him for his alcoholism, CNN did not scream at them for criticizing a veteran.
When they mocked him for believing he was fighting "Charlie" in the woods behind his house, they were not roundly denounced on MSNBC for dishonoring his military service.
His psychological trauma was not treated by the government that claims to support and honor those who volunteer to serve this country.
When he got sick as a result of spending his good years fighting their unnecessary war, he did not get state of the art medical treatment and the care befitting a man who made the sacrifices he made. The government that sprayed harmful chemicals on him ignored his pleas for help, but Karl Rove was not apoplectic with outrage.
When Jack died in his early 50s, he did not get the wall-to-wall news coverage that Tim Russert got. His family simply got an auto-pen letter from GW Bush, and a flag folded into a triangle.
His youngest child was a girl, literally born on the Fourth of July. That flag was handed to her at her father's funeral. About a year later, I met her. At our wedding, her father's photo was displayed in a frame on a table, looking on as her legally blind brother walked her down the aisle.
He missed his daughter's wedding, and she missed the opportunity to have her father walk her down the aisle. But most of all, she just missed him.
The sacrifice Jack made during his military service was met with little fanfare once his military service ended. He was disrespected by the government and often by his community. He was a quiet hero. Most people even within his own family did not know the extent of his bravery until after he was gone, when Purple Hearts were divided among his children and his Bronze Star citation was read.
Chumley speaks the truth when he (she?) asks if there is anyone in America "who has been given MORE respect and deference for his military service than John McCain?" Even as Wesley Clark and Barack Obama criticize John McCain, they preface their comments with repeated reverence for his military service. Yet many veterans, like John Kerry, Max Cleland, and Tammy Duckworth, have seen their military service and patriotism called into constant question. Max Cleland, who left both legs and arm in Vietnam after a grenade explosion, was morphed into Osama bin Laden in political ads. John Kerry, as we all know, saw his military service questioned. At their convention in 2004, Republicans wore Purple Heart band-aids to mock John Kerry's battle wounds -- and mocked the battle wounds of many other veterans, including Jack's, in the process.
And then there is Jack, and many others like him. Men and women who gave much, quietly, and then were swept under a rug, equally quietly.
And while McCain complains from one side of his mouth about his military service being "disrespected" and calling for Obama to "cut Clark loose", from the other side of his mouth McCain is truly disrespecting today's veterans by opposing the expanded GI bill (while also taking credit for it once it passed).
Here in 2008, we are creating an entirely new generation of Jacks. And we have a choice to make now. How will we honor them? Will we side with the leadership of those like Barack Obama, Wesley Clark, Jim Webb, and others who are fighting to repay their sacrifices and bring them home?
Or will we choose the philosophy of John McCain and the cable news pundits, and make all of those veterans President of the United States?