Veterans Day 2017
Being there: A Veterans Day message
By Col. Keith Nightingale, U.S. Army, retired
Once a year, our nation honors its veterans. Every day, veterans honor us all, with the fruits of their service.
The veteran recalls, reflects and remembers the very personal and unique aspects of time served in uniform.
All veterans have a binding thread that only they can know and share: knowledge that they were part of something larger than themselves.
As years go by and the conflicts of history dim, veterans speak of their wars and their place in them. "I was a soldier. I was a sailor. I was a Marine. I was a Coasty. I was in the Air Force. I was there."
When the nation sent them there, they did things no one else could do, and saw things they did not want to see but would always remember. They were there.
There is where they knew people for a millisecond and remembered them for a lifetime. There is where no one else could go, except them.
There has had many forms: sea, air and land. Wet, dry, unbearably hot and insufferably cold. There might be urban, rural, jungle, mountain or utter desolation, drenched in rain, heated from the sun and cooled by the chill. Bureaucratic base camps, comfortable ports and airfields could be found there, as well as some of the most austere environments imaginable. There, as a large enterprise, treated its many and various parts differently but imparted a unifying memory that could only be shared by those that had been there.
There is a special place that comes out of slumbering memory for pensive moments in time, many years later.
As they retreat into the dimness of time, veterans are awarded the luxury of reflection about being there, among a sea of faces, voices, friends and experiences. The most horrific experiences are tempered by time, remembrances of comrades and immense inner pride in having been there.
A sergeant is remembered today who quickly sized up a situation at an explosive and deadly moment while there. His voice is calm an focused. "I will take 6 to 12. You take 12 to 6. Lay out your magazines like this. Load like this. Focus and aim on movement.
Don't fire on auto. We could be here a while."
Several times throughout the night, he would reassure them, bring more ammo, share water and provide an immense comfort despite being there. They can't recall his name, and they never saw him again, but they will always remember his craggy face and calm demeanor when they so desperately needed it. It is his face that wells from their memories, despite thousands of other faces recorded over time in the images of their minds. His face was from there.
As life progressed, the world could be divided between those who knew what it was like to have been there, and those who did not.
Someone may run the board room and draw a seven-figure income but was never responsible for the lives of soldiers in a flicker of time. The responsibility was 100 percent theirs. Wealth and status mean little in comparison to the choices they made, the orders they gave and followed, and the companionship that could only be earned by being there.
Being there provided a theater of life unequaled by anything done before or since. There was something visceral and primordial about all those helos rotating on the strip, tanks rolling down the road, close-in airstrikes loosing their bomb loads directly overhead, the last-second hover over the burning LZ before the bird lands, the snap of the cable and steam rising from the catapult, the crash of claymores, the surprise detonation of a bomb, the shock of the first sharp rifle crack impacting on the man ahead of them, the smoke, dust and confusion of the millisecond after entering a grenaded room, the inharmonic snap of many rifles firing and brass expending, the thump of grenade launchers, the over-arching staccato of machine guns, breathless weighted soldiers running, bodies flying, people yelling and screaming, leaves, trees and mud-walled enclosures exploding around them, the quiet rythmic hissing and popping of a sucking chest wound as the blood seals the plastic wrap and the torn and bleeding body by the roadside in your uniform. These and a thousand more sounds and images stick with veterans who were there. They stick forever.
I was there.
In quiet solitude, there is a single thread that binds veterans. It is an immense pride about being part of something larger than themselves. It is the knowledge of having done much more than most ever do, performed well, took great risks, relied on good people and served a real purpose, by being there.
An anonymous soldier wrote a poem for all of them, those who were there:
I was that which others did not want to be.
I went where others feared to go, and did what others failed to do.
I asked nothing from those who gave nothing, and reluctantly accepted the thought of eternal loneliness... should I fail.
I have seen the face of terror; felt the stinging cold of fear; and enjoyed the sweet taste of a moment's love.
I have cried, pained, and hoped...but most of all, I have lived times others would say were best forgotten.
At least some day I will be able to say that I was proud of what I was...a soldier.
Col. Keith Nightingale, U.S. Army, retired, is a Vietnam War veteran and frequent contributor to The American Legion Magazine.