Military service in the United States used to be a far more common experience than it is today. When I was growing up, virtually all of my friend's fathers had served in the Second World War or Korea, and some were officers in Vietnam when I lived in the Washington, DC area in the late 1960s. In fact, almost everybody on my street had fathers in the service.
One of my best friend's father's, Lt. Col. John Giambruno, worked at the Pentagon, and took his Webelos Cub Scouts den to the Pentagon gym, which was a huge moment in my childhood. They had a bowling alley. It was amazing.
My own father was a staff sergeant in the Korean War. He volunteered before the army could draft him in 1950. The army recruiters told him he could go to surveying school, which was his main interest at the time. This was a canard. First, my dad had to take what was then called the Army General Classification Test, or AGCT. It was an IQ test. If he did well, they said, he could go to surveying school.
So he took the AGCT.
At three AM. After a ten mile hike.
He got a 103, slightly above average. An average IQ doesn't mean you're particularly bright, incidentally, So they sent him to the infantry, which is where they were going to send him in the first place.
Now, I would hasten to add that my father later went on to get a Ph.D. in plant pathology, and ran all the research in the U.S. Forest Service. He was the fastest finisher of a Ph.D. in that program at the University of Minnesota, ever. So his IQ was about forty points higher that he got on the AGCT.
Once he got into the infantry, he excelled. He became a platoon sergeant (I always say I was raised by a Norwegian Great Santini--he was a tough dude, and if your bed was not made right or the grass mowing lines weren't straight, you heard about it), and he then went on to become a radio operator.
They sent him first to Japan, then on into Korean, where the Chinese Army was trying to make sure he didn't have any heirs.
One time, he had a shell go off near him, and a piece of shrapnel went all the way through his helmet, and stopped at the plastic liner. He saved that. I have it, and if it had gone through, you wouldn't be reading this column.
Genetics and war are hell.
Another time, he was running down a hill with two comrades. There was machine gun fire in front of them. The soldier in front of him had his entire head shot off onto my dad, and the guy behind him was also killed.
My dad hid behind a rock for six hours, waited until dark, and then ran three miles in full gear back to his unit.
Another time, he went out several times under heavy Chinese fire to restring his phone lines so his commanders could communicate with each other. He got the Bronze Star for that one.
He was 21.
I also had an uncle at D-Day. He was in one of the later waves at Utah Beach, and he said there was so much traffic at the beachhead that he and a few thousand of his colleagues stood in the surf for six hours because there wasn't any room to move. He went on to help build the dock at Normandy they put up in 24 hours so the Allied invasion ships could moor.
I had another uncle who served in the Aleutians, and a great uncle who was a Lt. Commander in the Naval Air Corps. He also was in the Aleutians, and flew a PBY Catalina, a float plane and a submarine hunter. He was shot down. When he swam to shore, he found one of his men's boots washed up on the shore, with his foot in it.
He won the Distinguished Flying Cross.
I had a cousin who was an 2nd Lieutenant in Vietnam; he was an engineer, so he built bridges. He was on the receiving end of rockets a lot. I had another great uncle who was an Army Captain in World War I.
After 9/11, I decided to try to join the Naval Reserve. My dad was totally against it. He said, "Are you insane? They almost killed me."
I said, well, I doubt anyone in Naval Reserve Public Affairs gets killed.
In 2002, I took the physical, passed, and did all my interviews for a direct commission. I did two interviews at the Pentagon. As I was talking to the navy captain interviewer, I looked out his window. He said, "Do you see that scaffold?"
"That's where the nose cone of the plane stopped."
In the interview, the captain said it was likely I could be called up, and asked me if I had any concerns. I said yes, I did have two concerns.
"What are they?"
"Helicopters and hat hair."
I scored very highly in the interviews, but I was 13 months over age. I was assured that I would get an age waiver. I didn't. I was and am still very angry about it.
So here's to our veterans on Memorial Day. Here's to my Uncles Hal, Keith, Heinie, and Harvey. And here's to my dad, and yours, and your mothers, sons, daughters, and all of your relations who served or serve now. We ask a lot of them. They do thankless things so you can have a barbecue on Sunday, and I can draw cartoons and write.
That's as good a memorial to the American people as we can have.