November 11, 2009 by David Gillaspie
WHERE EVERY DAY IS VETERANS DAY
I belong to a gym where veterans carry on the fight. Time is the enemy, and it is relentless. A day off means another day lost. These are people who understand the difference between losing and winning. It’s not about how you play the game, it’s about living and dying.
There’s a man on a stationary bike turning 80 rpms. He looks like Lance leading the peloton. One calf muscle is missing, replaced by puckered skin.
“If I was self-conscious I’d wear sweat pants in here, but I’m not. You are who you are, and this is me, or what’s left. I ran into it in Vietnam. They would have saved my calf but no one could find it. I asked what happened. I was walking, then I woke up on a table. The report said shrapnel. I got knocked out and woke up without a calf muscle. I’m glad I still have my leg. It doesn’t hurt unless I don’t work it. Funny how that goes. It hurt when I first lost it, and now it hurts when I don’t use it. You know what works best? Dancing.”
Most of the vets I see in the gym are older guys who carry evidence of the violence done to their bodies. One man, fat and bald on top with a skinny ponytail on the back of his fringe, waited for a bench to open up. One arm was thin, the other normal sized.
“I haven’t always looked like this, you know. These guys strutting around in their dry-fit will see their day. I did three tours of ‘nam with the Seals. We didn’t fight the war reported in the papers. We didn’t have news cameras following us. No one followed us. They couldn’t if they wanted to. See that guy looking at himself in the mirror? You think he could hump five clicks with a bullet in his arm? The guy with the man-tan in the squat rack? Could he carry a buddy through the jungle? He’ll never know, but I do.”
My Army days started at the beginning of the all-volunteer service. 1974. We were hailed as the most intelligent, most capable, soldiers ever to enlist. I didn’t expect Rhodes Scholars, but I was still surprised by the number of screw-ups and goofballs they let in. We had the usual bed wetters and momma’s boys in boot camp. Some of them came around; a few were given thanks but no-thanks discharges; the rest barely fit in.
We had recent college graduates looking for another way to make their lives meaningful; a bus driver just below the age limit of thirty five who didn’t want to miss his chance; a Silver Star Marine who came back after rough times on the outside; a seventeen year old whose parents signed him up to keep him out of trouble. It was a mix of ages gathered to turn the Army around.
The Drill Sergeants were all Vietnam guys staying in for the long haul. They would guide the Army from what it had become to what it needed to be. They were skilled at soft-sell encouragement and hardcore slamming. During a march over the fire breaks of Fort Ord one trainee decided he’d had enough, and said so. He didn’t have to march if he didn’t want to. He had rights. He could call his congressman.
The senior Drill Sergeant stood over the sitting soldier and told him to stand up. When the kid didn’t stand, the Drill Sergeant yanked him up and gave him five slaps with five backhands in between while he screamed in the kids frozen face. It wasn’t something I expected from a kinder, gentler, Army, but along with the rest of the guys watching, it was no place to be. The kid lined up with everyone no worse for wear and played the game the rest of the training cycle.
The difference between Drill Sergeants and Range Masters was the difference between a rain shower and a down pour. The ranges had the guys who had been in the killing fields and come out alive, but weren’t poster material. The hand grenade range made it very clear. The flags over the range were shredded from constant blow back.
We waited in pens behind the range until the group on the other side finished. A Range Master stayed with the next group in line to walk them to the concrete stalls and the grenades.
“The important thing is to not panic. You can get killed here. You can kill others here. That’s what happens if you panic. Pull the pin, flip the spoon, and throw toward the target. If you drop the grenade, don’t panic. An instructor will kick it into the trough and pull you to safety if you don’t panic. If you drop the grenade and panic and try to pick it up, you’ll kill yourself and the instructor. We are here to learn how to kill, not to die trying.”
That was 1974. Those people aren’t the same ones in the gym I belong to today, but I recognize them anyway. They took something broken and made it work again. The same will happen with the war fighters today. Some will get out after their time is done, and some will see a way to make things better.
Soldiers who have been through the fire and stay in the service to teach others are a bridge. They are the ones laying brick one at a time so the rest of us don’t have to walk in the mud. They do their duty, and once done, will keep up the fight.
Hats off to the men and women living on the sharp end of the stick.