I was honored to be the guest speaker for the Woodsville, NH Veteran’s Day Ceremony this year. I spent a part of my military life learning the basic art of artillery there and was humbled when asked to address the crowds knowing those who I looked up to years ago would be listening to what I had to offer. This is what I said.
Thank you. Commander, fellow veterans and guests:
I was asked to speak today about what it means to be a Veteran, and I will. However, given that at 11:00 am Paris time 100 years ago today, the final shot of the Great War, the War to End All Wars, was fired, I must recognize that event. WWI began in August 1914 as a result of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary in Serbia. Before long, the nations in central Europe were at war, dragging their allies with them. In the four years of fighting around the world, 8.5 million Soldiers lost their lives and more than 21 million were injured. These numbers exclude civilian casualties. Even though the United States was involved in the war about a year, we lost 116 thousand Soldiers, 53 thousand to combat and 63 thousand to non-battle deaths such as disease and accidents.. Four point seven million troops served in the US armed forces during WWI, nearly 5% of the population. Today only 0.5% serve in our armed forces.
During this war, the world saw the first widespread use of submarine warfare with attacks on civilian passenger ships. The first widespread gas attacks caused panic on unprotected, unsuspecting troops. Before long both side were gassing the other. Commanders ordered waves of human, online attacks previously used to mass offensive firepower. The problem with the tactic in this war was a crew of three to five men armed with a new machine gun had the firepower of a division and mowed down line after line of troops. Artillery grew larger and projected shells farther than cannon crews could see. Forward observers called in corrections over great distances against enemy positions. Planes, invented in the previous decade, took to the sky to observe enemy movements. Before long they were armed and pilots were dueling each other for control of the skies. Pilots learned to drop bombs in trenches, the basics of dog fighting, and ground crews learned how to control the firing of machine guns in order to avoid shooting off propellers. Before long, large armored beasts crossed no mans land crossing trenches and brought another new weapon onto the battlefield.
In the last months of the war, a new killer emerged. Influenza cropped up in the winter of 1917-18. It followed troop movements around the world but was a nuisance rather than a threat. However, as the little germ found new hosts, it, like the other battlefield warriors, adapted and became increasing lethal targeting those of fighting age. In August, outbreaks began in several small pockets knocking out whole units and military posts. As infected Soldiers moved around the world, the new, more lethal virus moved with them causing even more death. Before this battle ended it was estimated 1/3rd of the world’s population became infected and at least 500 million people died from the flu.
However, on the 11th hour of the 11th day in the 11th month of 1918, the 11th Field Artillery Regiment of the US Army fired the last round of the war. This day has become a day to honor all those who served in our Nation’s armed forces. Today we recognize the sacrifices those individuals make to protect us all and keep us free.
What is it like to be a Veteran, the topic I was asked to discuss? I can only speak with any knowledge about what it is like for me to be a veteran. Every veteran has their own experiences and stories. They are all unique to each individual. Even Soldiers who fought in the same battle on the same day only yards apart have different perceptions about what happened. An example is April 9, 2004. I along with about 100 other Soldiers of which about 50 were from our company, were engaged in what some claimed was the largest attack on a fixed Army position since the Viet Nam War. I do not know if that is true, only what I was told.
Most of the things the other Solders tell me seem to make sense and match what I remember. I talk to others who were only a few feet away, and their stories about the same events sound like they happened in a different place and time. Still there are enough commonalities between those who served that with one or two words I can raise a response from other veterans. Those few words tell a whole story to them. The Army PT belt, drill sergeants, and basic training. Words that tell stories with those I severed with include, the rocket room, 40mm sponge, thee dumpster, and “light ‘em up” all have meaning. In my second deployment, I forbid my platoon to use the phrase “light ‘em up” because the near disastrous consequences from the term.
We were tasked to interdict mortar crew in The Projects that had just fired at our position. When we arrived we found lots of civilians out after curfew, but no obvious insurgents. It was dark and I wanted to see better so I instructed the squad leader to bring the HUMVEEs around and like them up. He refused and I repeated my order. He insisted that he was not going to shoot unarmed, innocent civilians. Silence. As I realized what he said and what I meant my heart stopped. He did shine the HUMVEE lights on the civilians after I clarified my order. It is funny now, but wasn’t then.
There are other things that have meaning in my career. Service members during the Cold War had their problems. Units stationed along the Iron Curtain lived with the fear of the Soviets racing through the Fulda Gap with divisions of tanks to invade western Europe. Decades later, I found myself in an airport in Leipzig Germany. There was a map on the wall showing where we were. I said to the young Soldier beside something like, “Holy cow, we are in East Germany!” The young Solider responded, “You mean eastern Germany Sergeant.” He did not know about East and West Germany nor of the Berlin Wall. His experience in that airport was different from mine even though we stood in almost the exact same spot.
Some veterans spend a career and never see combat. Others see much combat in a few years. Some come home and go on with life like they just went off to college. Others struggle from the unseen scars left by their experiences.
Some of the veterans standing beside you out there returned home after defending freedom and democracy to be booed, jeered, and spit upon by protesters. They do not know the elation of the welcome home parades received by veterans of WWI, WWII and those from the Gulf War and GWOT era. Their experiences were different than mine.
Because of these commonalities and differences two things seem to hold true. Some veterans learn ways to deal the events from their military service and lead productive lives. Some veterans never figure out how to deal with those experiences. Those who learn to deal with those events seem to find strength by associating with other veterans. Those who do not isolate themselves thinking they are they only ones feeling what they feel and die at their own hand. Suicide is too common an experience for too many veterans. The VA reports on average 22 veterans commit suicide every day. There is help for those struggling. Find out the numbers for the Veteran’s Crisis Line ((800) 237-TALK (8255)). Put it in your phone. You may never need it, but someone you know might.
I’ve been fortunate to been able to serve my nation at the State of New Hampshire for over 36 years. Like many, I planned on doing 20 and getting out. Every time my end of enlistment neared I found new challenges to conquer and I extended. I’ve met and worked with some really great people I never would have met here in New Hampshire, across the nation, and around the world. I have seen and done things others only dream about doing. What is it like to be a veteran? For me, it has been great!
Poppy field from PXhere.com
Truman’s Battery by Dominic D’Andrea, a US Government work
Checkpoint Charlie from US Government collection
Veterans Crisis Line from https://www.veteranscrisisline.net/