I am again having trouble believing that the American people as a whole really care about veterans, or perhaps even the people who are actively serving today.  They might on an abstract level, but there’s no risk in that.

Troops care for troops.  Veterans care about veterans, and family members care as best they can about those among them who serve, but I’m once again feeling like a dead man walking as reports about the aimless military effort in Afghanistan are filed, along with news this week that government officials have mishandled the remains of many of those killed in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

The United States may be pulling substantial forces out of Iraq,  but analysts have suggested for some time that a residual force of about 50,000 will remain indefinitely.  The much ballyhooed Afghan surge, along with the promise of a showdown with the Taliban, sounds illusory.  There appears to be a falling out between U.S. officials and Hamid Karzai, such that the Afghan leader tends to look more and more these days  like Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States’ pick as first president of the former republic of Vietnam.  Karzai (and perhaps his wise guy brothers) is said to be disillusioned with American leadership in his country and doesn’t think U.S. military tactics are working.  Reports suggest he might want to cut a deal with the Taliban and Pakistan.


It’s said the American people are tuning out on the current wars.  Yet, thousands and thousands of troops serve.  Some keep getting killed.  There’s no end in sight, and as yet, no draft.  Afghanistan has gone on longer than Vietnam.

And now, it seems some of the recent fallen slated for burial in the “sacred ground” of Arlington National Cemetery can’t be accounted for.


James Carroll, a Boston-based author who wrote extensively about the Vietnam War, has a piece up today on the The Daily Beast.  Carroll’s father was an Air Force general, and both of his parents are buried at Arlington.  He says:  “A military force that does not faithfully care for its fallen members is in far worse shape than even its anti-war critics imagine.”


During my most desolate time, working through the meaning of service in Vietnam – for well over ten years after actually being there – I was very aware that partisans along the divide then wanted to use veterans.  The left led the charge to pillory us, and the right wanted to wrap us in the flag.  I also experienced time and again people appearing in my face, to tell me what I’d gone through and what it meant, even though they had never been there.  And so it goes.

I can relate to Odysseus, and really, it might have been more fun being a mythical Greek king.

But I was not a soldier; I was an Air Force tech who spent a year on a combat flight line in Vietnam and happened to be there for the Tet Offensive.  A year, in and out.  Thanks for the memories.


My father though spent nearly six years in the Army, from December 1939 to August 1945.  He made master sergeant in the U.S., went to OCS, and then shipped to England as a second lieutenant.  He went through Utah Beach,  and, in addition to Normandy, is credited with taking part in engagements in Northern France, the Rhineland, the Ardennes, and Central Europe.  He was in Bastogne with George Patton’s Third Army, and was among the first Allied troops to open the German border, to see and deal with the Nazi-run death and slave labor camps.  He was awarded a Bronze Star and discharged as a captain.

I had never known the whole story about my father’s actual, detailed service, because he never spoke of it.  He couldn’t.  He drank heavily over many years and lost his family.

In just the last few months I have reconnected with a cousin on my father’s side.  Her father, and another brother besides my father – three of five brothers in all – served in World War II.

I met my cousin recently, along with her father and mother.  My uncle can’t easily get away from the memories of his service either.  It’s what he relies on for conversation.  Three times during my visit he showed me some German binoculars, and told me how a kid in in an Italian port city agreed to swap them for a pack of cigarettes.

These kinds of memories are very strong for people who served, as these men did.

They can kill as well.

Turns out my uncle, my father’s last surviving brother, now 87,  saved my father’s papers, and his daughter gave them to me.

They flesh out all that I suspected about my father’s service, which was very sketchy to me when my mother and I worked on his funeral over thirty years ago.

While preparing for this reunion, to get the whole story and, very likely, to pay final respects to my uncle,  I also spoke to a veteran’s agent in the Massachusetts town where my father grew up and is buried.

I was cross-checking records with the agent, and he confirmed my father’s service record, contained in the state’s database.

Then we talked a bit.  The agent said he knew which cemetery my Dad was in, and said he would be going there over Memorial Day weekend to stick flags into the ground next to veterans’ headstones.

So the picture of my Dad and his service is complete, finally; and this gives me a chance to refresh and restore his image in the family.  He was the real thing.  Whatever anyone might think of war, he did it.  And he paid for it.

I know where my father is buried.  My family knows too.  We’ll take care of it.


  1. Ché Pasa says:

    Oh, Hag.

    That story resonates with me more strongly than you can know. I’m sure I would not be able to find my father’s grave (drafted into the USAAC 1944, out in 1953 a Major in the USAF) without a lot of help, though I have, and treasure, the flag that covered his coffin. (I missed his funeral more than 40 years ago when my plane was delayed, and when I arrived almost a day later, no one in the family was much interested in taking me out to the cemetery. “It’s a long way out there. It’s cold. You’ll catch your death,” they said. Iowa stubborn is for real. I have no idea where my mother, sister, and brother are buried, don’t even know for certain ifthey were buried.

    Of course, I can’t visit the Vietnam Memorial here without losing it completely. After all these years, the losses of people I knew cut into me like daggers, and the diminishing number of Vets from all those conflicts from WWII through Vietnam, honored elders now, are as you say, mostly honored by other Vets.

    You’ve written a wonderful Memorial Day tribute to your father. And to mine. And to the millions whose service Americans too often know nothing of.


    [wipes eyes]

  2. cocktailhag says:

    Great piece, Dirigo… I’ve been reading lately, and I’ve never doubted, that the absence of a draft is at least partly responsible for the numbing apathy we see today. What war? Go shopping.

    • dirigo says:

      If people don’t have skin in the game, they can take a pass.

      And they do.

    • Ché Pasa says:

      Oh. You didn’t write it, Hag. My mistake. Missed that tiny little gray print, sooo wee, under the title. I’ll have to get new glasses or somethin’, maybe one of those eye operations they advertise in the papers all the time. Knew somebody who got one a few years back, fucked up her eyes bad, had to go back to have it done over, still can’t see worth a dam.
      Dirigo, I bow deeply in your general direction. It was a wonderful tribute.

      Wonderful. Thanks again.

  3. michlib says:

    Thanks, Dirigo for this poignant reminder. How easy it is for leaders who have never known the existential peril of war to bray and beat their chest and risk our nation’s blood and treasure, while, as ever, it is the families who bear the cost.
    Perhaps it is time to democritize the armed forces and bid adieu to the volunteer army. Such an organization has facilitated the overuse of U.S. forces throughout the world. In a nation of 300 plus million, it is easy to find those willing, or destitute and lured by financial incentives, to serve. Let’s get the entire social spectrum involved and see how eager politicians are to send the scions of Wall Street on military adventures.
    Again, thanks.

    • dirigo says:

      On the issue of national service, broadly defined, I’m in favor of it.

      At one point in my teens, I volunteered, through a church my family attended, assisting elderly people in a home to get around: to meals, to common rooms, to religious services.

      Frankly, I was never all that thrilled to do this sort of thing, being a self-centered kid of the ’50s; but I do remember the small signs of gratitude from older people who were helped, at least in the moment, by some kids who dropped by for a few hours here and there. I remember small, fleeting connections.

      How can ties be strengthened?