Monday, November 12, 2012

A no-longer reluctant veteran

On this observance of Veterans Day, I take a certain pride in being among those who are recognized today. At church yesterday, at about the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month (the time of the original Armistice Day ending World War I), I stood when the pastor asked all the veterans in the congregation to stand.

For all the pride I feel today, I was a reluctant veteran. If the rest of my generation were honest, I suspect a majority of them would have to admit that they, too, were not eager to join the ranks of America's military.

As I approached the end of my college years, my hometown draft board took notice and sent me a demand to show up for a draft physical. My draft number, from the first Vietnam War draft in 1969, was 29. There was no question, short of some political miracle, that I would be called up and required to serve. I passed the draft physical and could find no legal way out of raising my right hand and pledging to defend this country from all enemies, foreign and domestic.

On the day after my draft physical, as I walked across campus from class, I came across a Coast Guard recruiter who was signing up applicants for Coast Guard Officer Candidate School. Given a choice between Coast Guard OCS and a quick post-basic training trip to Saigon, I signed up. A few months of tests, interviews and background checks later, and I raised my hand to serve in the Coast Guard. Because of the over-subscription of qualified officer candidates, I was deferred from the fall OCS class to the February class, but I was safe from the draft in the interim.

My Coast Guard career took me from OCS to Washington, D.C., where I was assigned to answer "congressional inquiries," letters from members of Congress asking about Coast Guard personnel. These inquiries were usually prompted by letters from upset mothers, the gist of which was, "My son enlisted to guard the coast, so why is he on an icebreaker (or on a river in Vietnam)?" Answering the letters was not difficult, and I soaked in the excitement of being in the nation's capital through the 1972 election and the Watergate scandal. I also came to admire my colleagues and superiors, particularly the gruff, no-nonsense captain who was my first boss. Before my tour of duty was over, he had been deep-selected for rear admiral and later became vice-commandant of the entire Coast Guard. He was the most skilled manager I've ever known and could easily have succeeded in business or academia, but he chose, like many others I came to know, to serve in uniform.

I left Washington to return to civilian life, eager to begin a career in journalism and to settle down in a quiet, small town with my family, far away from the noise and crowding of a big city. Many times since then, I have regretted my decision to decline the offer to remain in the officer ranks and stick around until I qualified for a pension. My wife points out that our lives would be quite different if I had stayed in. A long afloat assignment would have been inevitable after I had spent three years ashore, and who knows where the Coast Guard might have sent me over the next 20 or 30 years.

My military service did not involve combat or extraordinary danger, but it did help shape me and my outlook on life. Like most veterans, I like organization, discipline and commitment. I may have been reluctant 40 years ago, but I am glad — and take pride in the fact — that I served in uniform. I learned from that experience, perhaps as much as I learned from four years of college, and I think today's young men and women, with no pressure from a military draft, miss an opportunity that could benefit them.

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