Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Marching on From Armistice Day



In my youth, I did not give much thought to my birthday coinciding with Armistice Day, to be honest about it.

It was an interesting factoid that the Allies and Germany agreed to cease hostilities on the Western front -- effectively ending World War I -- as of the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. And neither Brian Williams nor I were there when it happened; believe it or not, I hadn't been born yet.

Instead, I learned it in history class, which still was de rigeur for an educated person back in the '50s.

The Second World War was dawning as I was born in Savannah, where my mother took me about every day to crawl and play on the beach with a big ol' white dog ("Whitey") as my playmate. The infamous attack at Pearl Harbor happened just a month after my birth. As America again entered the war "over there," German U-boats sometimes appeared off the Georgia coast.


After Armistice Day evolved into Veterans Day to recognize all men and women of the armed services, I came to feel more and more honored -- even blessed -- to be able to share my birthday with this important occasion when we recognize all who have worn the uniform and helped protect our liberties so diligently, and sometimes valiantly.

Right out of college in the summer of '63, I became a newspaper bureau chief in Southside, Virginia (covering, among other things, the civil-rights movement). Our forces were involved in Southeast Asia, but Vietnam had not yet blown up into an all-consuming war.

To fulfill my military obligation, I decided to join the local Army National Guard chapter in Farmville. I did so not with any intent of avoiding combat duty but with a desire to keep my budding career on track while serving my country.

On the afternoon I took my armed forces induction exam at a military office near Richmond, the examiners called me in to ask what university I had attended. Whether they thought my test answers were outstanding or disappointing, they never said. What they did tell me next was that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas.

Vietnam started heating up that that.

My most vivid memory of basic training at Fort Gordon, Georgia, was camping out in pup tents in some of the coldest winter weather I have ever experienced. Later, during advanced artillery training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, it felt as though there was nothing between you and the Canadian winds sweeping down the plains.

Back with my unit, our training intensified as it appeared we would be deployed for duty in Vietnam. We went so far as to start packing our gear. Then came word that President Lyndon Johnson had decided against activating Guard units for Vietnam. Pundits speculated (probably correctly) that LBJ made a political calculation to avoid adding to public discontent with this war in communities around the nation.

Instead, we received much training for domestic riot control. After the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Memphis, we were sent to Richmond to protect against potential rioting. Thank God, none occurred and no one was hurt. Perhaps Dr. King's powerful doctrine of nonviolent civil disobedience helped keep us all safer.

So basically, yes, I am a veteran (and proud of it) but I make no claim to having achieved heroic status or anything close to it. I am confident that each and every member of my Guard unit would have served as ordered by our commander-in-chief; none would have gone AWOL. In Iraq and Afghanistan, many Guard units have been repeatedly called up and asked to perform perilous duty. We should honor their service and sacrifices even as debate rages in our democracy about the proper balance of diplomacy and force in resolving international conflicts.

Reflecting on my November 11 birthday, I feel a connection with Armistice Day/Veterans Day. I pray for the soldiers, sailors, airmen, coast guardsmen, and Marines who protect our country. I pray their steadfast service will preserve peace because war is hell. Three cheers for those who have served, and who serve still.

Happy Veterans Day!

                                     © Robert G. Holland  2015

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