We spent the weekend in San Diego celebrating a wedding. On our way out of town, we decided to take a tour of the USS Midway. I felt uneasy paying the price of admission because I felt like I was supporting war. But because I love my country like a family, I accept and love the best and not-so-best of those I love. This ship represents my country’s history, and as such is a part of me, and I need to know. I need to know about my family.
The USS Midway is staffed by an impressive array of veterans whose service spans over 60 years. We met many docents throughout our tour. Each of them is a proud volunteer and is exceedingly happy to answer every question you might have. Steve, who served in Vietnam, lent me the month-by-month records of the Midway’s history. I learned that the USS Midway spent most of her time assisting military missions. She served in Vietnam and was the flagship vessel of the Gulf War fleet. However, she also assisted in humanitarian missions, including the evacuation of over 3, 000 refugees in Saigon and over 1, 800 refugees (I think) when Mt. Pinatubo exploded. Most of the time, though, she’s been a vessel of war, as she is designed to be. I visited the War Room, the origin of strategy for the Gulf War. I felt uneasy in the place where war began. From Wayne, a retired Marine with a tattoo of a giraffe on his leg (they’re the wife’s favorite), we learned about how planes take off and land safely on deck, how the captain is ALWAYS responsible (even if he’s asleep!), and how to chart a course through the open sea. We moved on through the tour to the Ready Rooms, the place where pilots would gather to watch movies, read mail or meet before a mission to receive their orders. Though I didn’t get our docent’s name, he held an impressive stature. He was tall, confident, and carried an air of authority. He was kind of a badass. He talked to us about the functions of the Ready Room and how all the seats are arranged by rank. Naturally, I gravitated to the seat of the highest ranking officer. Dave sat next to me. Just like home, right? Anyway, at the end of his presentation, I asked him about his service history. He flew in the US Navy for over 20 years. Now retired, he spends much of his time on the Midway talking to people about life on an aircraft carrier. We moved through several Ready Rooms, each adorned with shields of battalions, jackets, medals, and letters. Each piece of memorabilia churned a swell of pride and sadness because these men, these brave men, left land and all the loving people on it, to fly out into the blue unknown to defend and fight, and hopefully return. Many did not. I tried to talk to Dave, but I felt that ol’ sentimental frog in my throat. I held off.
As we returned to the lower decks, we saw dozens of veterans out chatting with visitors. One caught my eye. An older gentleman sat at a table next to a sign which read, "Talk to a real WWII veteran." I thought, "What's so special about that?" To my amazement, somebody was talking to him! Really?
And I realized, in a lightning bolt moment, that my childhood was special and unusual. That even as I loathe war, I cannot deny the countless times I watched my grandfathers sit together on our patio swapping stories from World War II. Though my mother’s father flew out of England and my father’s father sailed through the Pacific, they are joined in the eternal brotherhood of men who defended our country in a war of the world. I noticed the line of people waiting to speak to this man, and I realized that mine was not the experience of every child.
I grew up with the distinct privilege of hearing real stories from real heroes and seeing real tears shed from decades-old wounds. Their stories have become an undeniable part of me. Though my father denied for many years the legitimacy of his service, recently he has accepted his place in our nations’s history. He served our country in the Air Force. He assisted young men as they flew out of Vietnam. I asked him once about a good memory he had from that time. He told me, “Once, these guys were on a plane coming home, and when we lifted off, the whole plane erupted in cheers.”
I learned early that some wounds never heal.
About two weeks before he died, I got to visit one last time with my grandfather. We went out to breakfast, and in the course of our small talk, he said, “Boy, when I left San Francisco and left for the Pacific, I didn’t know if I’d come back.” I imagine that all the men and women who serve share a similar sentiment because, as we all know, they don’t all come back.
With one hour left in Memorial Day, I reflect that I’ve spent my life with conflicting feelings. I love veterans but hate war. Does hating war mean that I’m disrespecting veterans? I don’t think so, though many may disagree. I maintain that the finest way to honor a veteran is to find a peaceful solution to a conflict. Less war means fewer veterans. Sounds pretty good! I dislike emotional and physical wounds. I dislike political games. I dislike unnecessary death. My position on war is independent of my feelings towards those who serve. I’ve seen my grandfathers’ faces when they talk. It’s what they don’t say – that’s what should never have been seen. But, they saw it and then they lived lives in dignity and honor for their families and country. I take pride in knowing that their legacy is part of my story. I want peace so badly, and it is because of these great people who see, hear, smell, taste, and touch that which no human should ever have to experience at the hands of another. Yet I am profoundly grateful to them every day. I cannot help but shake hands with folks in uniform and say, “Thank you”, and wish them good luck. And sometimes shout, "HAPPY VETERAN'S DAY!" to the guy in uniform at the airport CPK eating his pizza on Veteran's Day. He shouted, "Thank you!" right back and some people clapped.
Seriously, the real people in that uniform are a big deal to me.
Seriously. War sucks.
Today I mourned the loss of those who served. Today I remembered those who went away and came back, but lost themselves on the battlefield. Though still with us in body, they are forever changed. Today I thank those who might help them regain their sense of self again, that they might live out the promise of a life well-lived. Today I remember those who put on a uniform, yet are no longer with us. Today I thank the spouses, children, mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and friends who supported them.
Let us honor our veterans and love peace equally.