After learning that I had been a guest speaker at a high school Veterans’ Day assembly last week, one of my sons expressed regret that he could not have been present to experience it. He asked if I had a transcript. “Nope,” I responded…”no transcript, son — I spoke from the heart using a PowerPoint presentation to keep myself from rambling. Because I wish too that you could have been there, I’ll try to recall what I said for you.” This, I think, is pretty close to what I said.
I opened with Jefferson’s quote saying that much has changed since 1803 with respect to advantage and happiness sought and gained by some in return for public service, but that one thing is a constant. Serving one’s country is still honorable.
After the opening slide transitioned to this one, I thanked the school for asking me to speak, saying that it was a true honor to be allowed to represent all veterans, including one of my own sons who served in our first war in the Persian Gulf, Desert Storm. But I emphasized that one need not wear a uniform to be a hero, that there are EVERYDAY heroes, and they are all around us. Those who sacrifice and serve quietly on a daily basis are heroes, moms and dads taking time off to support extra-curricular school activities for example… volunteers in church and civic organizations… teachers who might be making a lot more money in other careers.
Then from the picture of me marching, I recalled my grandmother’s words of admonishment when she dropped me off at the induction station at Camp Douglas east of Salt Lake City in June of 1966. “Do what you have to do, Kent,” she said, “then come home.”
I told my audience that I later came to understand that my grandmother wasn’t telling me to go be a hero. She was telling not to be a coward just as the Spartan mother of ancient Greece was telling her own son not to be a coward when she said, “Come home carrying your shield or be carried home upon it.”
I explained to my audience that I wasn’t a hero just because I wore a uniform and served honorably in combat, for true heroism goes beyond serving reluctantly as I did. My service was reluct- ant because I didn’t want to be judged to be a coward. I could have done as others did and left to live in Canada to avoid the draft. I might have done so too, but I didn’t want to be judged by others to be a coward. No, true heroism means at a minimum, volunteering, and all our servicemen and women today are volunteers. Therefore, they all come closer to deserving the hero’s moniker than I did. I was not a hero.
I explained how, as a draftee, I went on to become a Field Artillery officer, then a helicopter pilot, then an aircraft maintenance officer and maintenance test pilot, volunteering for one school after another thinking that the longer I stayed in school, the longer I could stay HERE and avoid going over THERE. I told them how, after graduation from flight school, the majority of my class went straight to Vietnam and found themselves smack in the middle of the Têt Offensive of ’68, the bloodiest year of the whole war. I read about it each morning in the Army Times while sitting in classrooms at Ft. Eustis, VA learning how to administer aviation maintenance units and oversee aircraft repair efforts. From the obituaries each week in the paper I read name after name of fallen comrades, young men with whom I had flown, studied, and partied on weekends. I wrote letters to families of the fallen I had known, but I was feeling less and less heroic as the days and weeks passed by before it would finally be my turn to see combat.
At this point, I showed a YouTube slide-show video put to music by a 15 year old girl named Lizzy Palmer. I had downloaded it and converted it for showing in my PowerPoint using third-party software. While YouTube.com probably wouldn’t like my having done this, I’m pretty sure that Lizzy would be most happy knowing that I shared her work with my audience. Click on the play button twice, once to load and once to view.
Following the video, I asked for a show of hands by those who have a family member or friend currently in uniform and serving overseas. About one-third of my audience raised their hands. Then I told everyone else to look around. “Most of us,” I said, “are going about our business day after day, so far unaffected by this war. The only ones bearing the burden are the volunteers themselves and the people who, like those who had their hands in the air, are waiting and praying for their loved ones’ safe return. Our nation,” I said,” while legally at war, is not on a wartime footing — hasn’t been from the beginning of it after 9-11. The price of the war, in terms of blood, sweat and tears, is being paid by only a few of us. The cost of it, in terms of dollars, is being added to the national debt for future generations to have to deal with.”
“When I came home from Vietnam,” I said, “we were told to change out of our uniforms before leaving the airport terminal and to leave from side- and rear exits. Vietnam was a most unpopular war and many then were blaming those of us in uniform for perpetuating it. No victory parades for us.
On Veterans’ Day 1971, after having visited the parents of one of my fallen flight school comrads, a Second Lieutenant named Johnny Benton, I was determined to wear my uniform on the University of Utah campus. I had returned there to finish my undergraduate degree so that I might be able to make the Army a career. Despite the boo’s and jeers doing so provoked, despite the spittle and rude body-block bumps endured, I carried myself proudly for Johnny’s sake and I finally felt somehow patriotic. Please,” I said, “don’t let our veterans today have to go through anything like that. No matter how unpopular this current war may become, don’t blame the troops for fighting it. They didn’t start it!”
I told my audience that perhaps the most heroic thing I did while in Vietnam was to sacrifice my front row seat to see the Bob Hope Christmas show at Camp Eagle, the division base camp for the 101st Airborne/Airmobile Division. As a Transportation Detachment commander for the division, I knew that seats to see the show were limited, and that my going would mean that some other enlisted man couldn’t. So I volunteered to fly a mission on Christmas Eve of 1969 transporting a Division Chaplain from one fire support base to another.
“Bob Hope here,” I told my audience, “was a hero for all of us, dedicating himself year after year to entertain troops away from home at Christmas and other special times of the year. He never wore a uniform, at least not officially. But no serviceman or women ever resented his penchant for wearing unit patches and qualification badges; he was an honorary member of every unit in every service, and his passing in 2003 marked the end of an era. There’ll never be another quite like him.”
“The Chaplain and I flew together the entire day, returning to Camp Eagle to refuel only once,” I said. “This is a picture of Fire Support Base Eagle’s Nest overlooking the Asha Valley. It’s one that I took weeks before my Christmas Eve mission on a day that was not overcast. On Christmas Eve, 1969, the clouds were hanging low in the late afternoon when we arrived, and before the chaplain finished his worship service and offered sacrament to those who wanted it, we were completely ‘socked-in’. We spent the rest of the evening filling sand bags and singing Christmas carols. C-rations and mud — it remains my most memorable Christmas experience.”
One-by-one I recalled some examples of modern-day heroes who, except for President Kennedy, were not heroes by virtue of military service.
First, Dr. Martin Luther King who, by his efforts we have the Civil Rights Amendment making discrimination illegal whether by race, creed, religion or national origin. He was a hero. Then I asked my audience if, despite the Civil Rights Amendment, we still have discrimination in America. I heard a resounding, YES, in response from many. Then I responded to them saying, “Then be heroes and put an end to it. Each of you. Grow beyond the prejudices you harbor in your own hearts and stand up for fair and equal treatment whenever you encounter injustice. Every time you do so, you will be a hero.”
Second, Mother Jones who organized a children’s crusade in the 1930s that led to laws making child labor illegal in America. Her efforts contributed greatly to the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, which in-turn lead to government passing laws to ensure safety in working places and the people’s right to collectively bargain for wages, benefits and working conditions. She was a heroine.
Third, Mother Teresa who saw crushing poverty in the world and went to the heart of it in Calcutta, India alleviating suffering where she could and moving many others to do likewise. She was a heroine.
Fourth, Cesar Chavez who saw inequity and unfair treatment of migrant workers, gave his life to make things better for unskilled laborers. He was a hero.
Fifth, Princess Diana showed us all that privilege and wealth does not put us above giving more than just money to correct injustices in the world where we find it. She worked tirelessly to promote efforts to rid war torn regions of the world from landmines which made and continue to make it impossible for farmers to raise food to feed their families in relative safety or children to play outdoors. She was a heroine.
Sixth, President Kennedy, already a hero by virtue of military service above and beyond the call of duty during WWII, inspired a nation of young and old alike when he said at his inaugural address, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” He energized thousands to join the Peace Corps. It still exists today as an independent federal agency and is still helping to turn hatred and resentment toward Americans into gratitude and respect. But it lacks the numbers today that it once had.
In closing I asked the students what they could do for their country, not after graduation from high school or college but right now… today. After a five count of hushed silence, I said: “Go back to class and learn all you can — that’s what you can do. Stay in school and prepare yourselves for a better tomorrow. There’s much to be done. Me and my generation, your parents’ generation too, we’ve managed to make a pretty big mess of things. So, if new leadership in today’s generation cannot set aside political, social and economic differences long enough to get something lasting done, it’ll be up to you and your generation to straighten it all out. But you will not be up to the task if you are not educated and if you do not stay well-informed.” Then I thanked them for their kind attention and told them that I would look forward to having them in my economics class when they become seniors.
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