It's Veteran's Day, and we reserve this day as a nation to honor those who have served our country. Today, I am writing about a Veteran who continues to serve his country and to serve his brothers in arms. . .
Our military are bound by oath and by law to give their service at our leaders' call, placing their lives, their futures, and their families' futures in profound committment, whatever consequences may come, whatever personal suffering may result.
We are in the midst of a war where four thousand soldiers have answered our leaders' call and given their lives, and tens of thousands of others bear the permanent consequences of mortal combat. They and their families have given a priceless service for each of us, and for all of us, and especially for the principles that we as a nation profess.
Even in periods of relative peace, the tensions of international politics are most keenly felt by soldiers and their families.
Jim is now in his seventies. He is a fit man, with a lantern jaw, a shock of white hair that often sports a cowlick. He has a perpetual twinkle in his eye and lively wit. Jim currently uses his engineering skills, traipsing hill, wood and field with confident disregard of weather terrain and even (!) broken bones, bearing surveying equipment. Jim is a retired Pastor in the UCC. It isn't hard to envision Jim as a officer, in command of others doing difficult or dangerous things requiring thought, dedication and direction.
Jim grew up in Philadelphia. His family has roots in New England, and has a long history of military service. Jim recalls childhood play during WWII where he practiced escape and evasion tactics. Jim and his wife Lois met while he was in technical school and she was in college. Both young folks had strong Protestant backgrounds and involvement with their church. Jim joined the choir where lively, talented Lois was a soloist. They courted and married.
Young Jim went to technical school and studied civil engineering, participating in ROTC for two years, which was a requirement of the program. When he graduated, he received a commission in the Army for two years, but elected a three-year commission and was sent to Germany, along with Lois and their growing family. Lois recalls that he was away a lot, though the whole family was in Germany. Lois and Jim had four children during the following years. Lois' interest in classical music allowed her to embrace cultural opportunities and develop her skill as a singer amidst demands of raising children and managing a household. Her singing began to bring in money for the family and to achieve interest from musicians in Germany. A real strength of this couple is their ability to maintain separate interests and efforts, while supporting one another. They have both demonstrated enormous resiliency in managing change and challenge.
Jim gained much experience during those years. He reports serving as a second Lieutenant with the topographic company; experience with the military justice system, reviewing charges; and working with the 7th Army Head Quarters, transporting secret materials and earning increased security clearances after he was given command of a Panel Bridge Company. Jim describes knowing what was going on based on where he was being sent. He was part of a team of combat engineers who insure the army's ability to move troops and materiel. Of course this is a much condensed account of a long and accomplished career.
Jim explains that during those years NATO forces were deployed and the 7th Army was the only field army the U.S. had during that period of escalating tensions in the Cold War. He recalls radiation gear and describes training in nuclear fallout conditions, where docimeters measuring rads were affixed to battle dress, and percentages of viable troops were linked to radiation levels measured by those docimeters. Jim was schooled in the symptoms of radiation sickness and chemical warfare. He was also involved in the transport of Nuclear arms to units well East of the Rhine. He often had knowledge that his commanders didn't have, due to his former assignment with 7th Army HeadQuarters.
Jim recalls the escalating buildup during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and highest alert status in the European theatre where the 7th Army was poised for nuclear conflict. He recalls being in a general staff meeting, where he witnessed a briefing on likely targets, and learned that his wife and children would be among the first hit with nuclear missiles if tensions escalated to outright attack. Months later, when the missile crisis was happening his Bridge Company was sent to Alert Position.
His duty was to serve the Army, and he could not leave his post to be with his family, or warn them, due to security matters, and his oath of service.
He grows quiet in recalling those hours, with the grace of someone who cannot find the words to fully convey the moment, but who lived it in his soul.
"That day, in the mirror, when I left my quarters, I saw a dead man who can't do a thing for his wife and kids". Yet he had to continue in his service as the crisis ensued, knowing what he knew, sworn to keep it to himself.
Fortunately, the escalating conflict abated. Eventually, Jim was reassigned back to the U.S. and continued with the Army Corps of Engineers. He was sent to serve in units where the army was used, often for political reasons, or by officers, to accomplish works in towns and cities in the U.S. During that period, Jim became aware of the diminishing role of training in the military, and that soldiers were not being given adequate battle preparation. He made numerous reports of concern up the chain of command to his superiors, increasing as the conflict in Vietnam began to involve more and more U.S. soldiers. He got no response and nothing changed.
Jim noted that the brass sometimes used the engineers for what appeared to be gratuitous efforts or those of a political nature. He describes frustration, and reflects that there are long-standing divisions among "top brass" aristocracy and those who were most engaged in the actual operations. Jim recalls that he witnessed a lot of "asphalt soldiering", but that training in the use of battle equipment and know-how were severely diminished in favor of other uses, while younger soldiers were being sent into war in Vietnam. He was concerned for the well-being of soldiers going into conflict. His concerns were ignored. And ignored. He continued to have security clearance and was aware of plans at high levels that struck him as anomalous with what he saw in daily implementation.
He describes becoming aware that there were limits to what he could aspire to in terms of a military career. As a non-West Pointer, he could "maybe make light Colonel, but not a General". He was frustrated at the lack of concern he witnessed, and his own position of relative powerlessness to affect change. After much soul searching he tended his resignation. With a wife and four children to support, and earned GI benefits, he entered the Seminary.
In listening to Jim, one senses his own grief at not being able to continue to serve due to the widening rift between leadership and those under their command, and an increasing lack of accountability by military leaders. If things had gone otherwise, Jim might very well have remained with the Army for all of his career.
Jim graduated from seminary and entered his first pulpit as an ordained pastor in a community near Pittsburgh. The Vietnam War was well under way, and the draft had been implemented. He heard stories of families who had lost sons, and soldiers who had died, or come back maimed. He heard the often odd explanations, or incomplete information given to families. He was discouraged from preaching about the war, by his conservative congregation, despite his years of military service.
Jim felt a passionate love for soldiers and a moral duty to stand up to the policies that surrounded the Vietnam War. As Jim tells it, "troops as a whole had lost readiness". He observes that the training he observed before leaving the military was nothing like the training he had had before his deployment to Germany, and that battle readiness was compromised. He felt the balance among "mission, men, and materiel" was compromised.
He was concerned that the government could never fully articulate why troops were being sent, and that the enemy was hard to identify. He also felt that the armed forces would be less able for other missions due to the manner in which things were being managed. He draws parallels to our current involvement in Iraq.
He felt worry for the soldiers and that they were not being adequately supported, and that the lack of government accountability was profound.
Jim became a member of the Vets for Peace in Pittsburgh, and began demonstrating with other Vets. While the cameras of that day, so useful even now in mischaracterizing activities of protest, would focus only on the unruly kids and those whose behavior was disrespectful or even violent, Jim and his fellow Veterans would attend, dressed in military uniforms, professional and dignified in formation. They were there with the full history of their service and training to stand up in peaceable assembly, and in awareness of their first Amendment right to offer peaceable protest.
Jim attended countless protests and rallies on behalf of Veterans for Peace, keeping marches orderly.
Jim recalls one occasion, "Dewey Canyon III" with the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. As the group marched in formation, they passed a group from the American Legion who were holding a sign that said "DUTY, HONOR, COUNTRY". Jim and his colleagues marched with military precision and snapped a salute to the assembled American Legion Veterans, who responded with a salute, automatically, despite their differing views.
Jim recounts myriad efforts during that time, in Washington and in Pittsburgh. He recalls the Vets for Peace efforts to keep protests peaceable and reports that the majority were peaceable. However he also notes that his and other groups against the war were infiltrated by FBI representatives, and that their efforts were often mischaracterized in the news.
Jim was fired from his church position early during that time, with no insurance or severance for his wife and kids. Someone had caught his image in the TV news and word got out, though it wasn't really a secret. Divisions about the war were already stirring, and public opinion was manipulated to equate criticism of the war with lack of patriotism, or lack of support for the troops. This is an historical inaccuracy parlayed by our media even to this day, which has been sadly repeated again and again in political discussion of Vietnam and of Iraq.
Lois reports that for a time, they were living hand to mouth, and that the kids used to like the meetings of the Veterans at their home because change would sometimes drop from the soldier's pockets into the sofa cushions. But the couple felt strongly that what the government was doing was wrong, and that soldiers, like those Jim had served with were being mistreated by their own government. Their family paid a steep economic price in order to take a stand.
The group, utterly peaceable and in complete support of the military, were infiltrated by the FBI. During this time, numerous members of the organization were being wiretapped. Jim also reports that he was listed with the FBI as subversive and "Un-American". He had merely been enacting his first Amendment right in a courteous and civil manner.
Jim continues to stand up for soldiers. He has marched on behalf of his brothers and sisters in arms who now serve in Iraq, for the same reasons he marched those many years ago.
Jim and Lois live modestly, having raised four children. They have many grandchildren. They are vigorous and lively elders who stood for something important and abiding. They both attend church, read voraciously, and are involved in their community.
Last week, Jim donned his military hat again, and canvassed in Keene, NH for now President-Elect Barack Obama.
The opposite of patriotism is not disagreement, but indifference, or perhaps an unwillingness to bear complexity of thought. Our nation has a solemn duty to carefully deliberate and to give fair hearing to dissenting opinion, before committing our troops to armed conflict. To do otherwise, and to silence deliberation, or avoid it, is to betray soldiers and the promise they have given in deepest faith.
Our elected leadership is hired to enact our will as a people. Elected leaders can easily use resources to manipulate public opinion, silence dissent, and there should always be wariness when this occurs since it violates the very principles we profess as a nation. If we citizens are duped into war by elected leadership, or deceived about its management, then the whole nature of honor to our soldiers is corrupted. Soldiers should never be made scapegoats for the leadership that enacts their service. Nor should they be used as hostages by that leadership to extort funding or to silence concerns.
To criticize policies enacted in war is not the same as criticizing our troops. It is, in fact, an act of deep patriotism, defying indifference, triviality, and sentimentality to uphold the very principles that define our Democracy.