I was 19 years old when I left for Parris Island with three of my buddies from South Buffalo on Oct. 9, 1967. We joined the Marines on the buddy system, and three of us went to Vietnam. The fourth was critically injured in boot camp and has been a paraplegic ever since.
I love watching all of the family greetings at airports, the military fathers who show up unexpectedly at their children’s schools and the other heart-warming greetings by family and strangers alike for our returning veterans.
I can remember when it was quite different, returning home after 12 months and 20 days in Vietnam. Marine, Army, Navy and Air Force vets returned home disabled physically, scarred mentally and with combat fatigue when no one realized what they suffered from. There was very little postwar counseling for battle fatigue, or time to readjust from life in the jungles to the city streets back home.
I recall walking through airports from one end to the other and never once hearing, “welcome home, Marine.” Never was I greeted with a smile or a pat on the back.
Back then, the military draft was in place and if you were not enrolled in college by your 19th birthday, you were headed for boot camp and two years of military service, which usually meant a year in Southeast Asia.
It is different today, some for the good and some not. In the 1960s, teenagers and men in their early 20s from all across the nation, some out of college with their deferments used up and some right out of high school, were sent to Vietnam. Sons of the rich and poor all joined in arms and fought side by side for their country and for their own survival.
We were all the same – young Marines and soldiers just trying to survive each day and return home in one piece to see our family and loved ones. They greeted us not as heroes, but as sons, brothers, fathers and veterans who served our country in a time of need.
Today military service is all-volunteer. Your chances of serving with the child of a wealthy politician, a lawyer or a doctor are slim to none. These politicians can call it whatever they want, but it’s the middle and working class Army today. The 2 percent did what they usually do in this country – they bought their way out of any and all military service for their children. This is the law of the land and it’s not about to change.
But who really won, and who missed out? Look to Sen. John McCain, Secretary of State John Kerry and Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy. These are and were men of character, compassion and strength – and real leaders in our country. Most of all they were military veterans.
I returned home from Vietnam on April 22, 1969. I walked through the Buffalo Airport with no fanfare. The only welcome home I had was my proud father and my loving mother who hugged me and cried and hugged me some more. This is why I love witnessing the beautiful and heartfelt welcomes that our vets receive today when they come home after serving their country so unselfishly.
This is one scenario where we as a country have come full circle. These young vets are serving their country and they deserve every accolade and advantage that can be given to them by our great nation. To past vets, thank you for your service; and to all still in harm’s way, stay safe and God bless.