The growing furor over President Bush's Vietnam-era National Guard service - or lack thereof - is fraught with consequence and should be of more than passing concern to all veterans. I'm reminded why by my experience at a veterans reunion two years ago.
I've never been given to participating in, or even the value of accepting, veterans' gatherings. All those guys walking around in camouflage fatigues and berets, bedecked in unit insignias and patches, flaunting ribbons and medals of varying significance, completely turn me off. Such in-your-face ostentation seems to say: "I went to war and put my life on the line for you soft, ungrateful civilians. It was the only significant experience in my life. I won't put it behind me and move on. You owe me recognition and respect."
My reaction has always been: "Get a life."
But my grudging Veterans Day experience two years ago tempered my perspective. There is much to say, I found, for the satisfactions of reuniting with former comrades in arms, from whom I gained much and to whom I owe much. Such an experience puts everything in perspective.
Indeed, I encountered plenty of the the faux warrior has-beens, swarming all over Arlington National Cemetery and the Vietnam and Iwo Jima memorials. There also, though, were plenty of guys like the ones from my unit, Charlie Company, 4th Battalion, 3rd Infantry - sincere, unpretentious, well-meaning individuals who wanted nothing so much as to reconnect with their former comrades, to share again something primal and visceral they had shared before, to pay their respects and show their affection for one another. No flag waving, no stump speeches, no boastful patriot talk; just camaraderie.
What do a bunch of aged and aging, bald and gray, mustachioed and bearded, wrinkly guys with pot bellies, chicken legs, stick arms, and dumpy posteriors who served together in combat do when they get together?
They tell copious war stories, to be sure - occasionally clearly and lucidly as if the events had just happened; more often straining to recall exactly who did what, when, and where. Was the helipad located here or there? Did we go on that mission before or after you joined the platoon? Who was the guy who was walking point when we hit that booby trap?