Friday, March 02, 2007

Why I Became An Angel: Somebody Had to Give A Damn

Sorry for the profanity, but it is relative to the story. It probably seems ironic and even paradoxical to say "Angel" and "damn" in the same sentence.

Like most Angels, the simplest version of why I joined can be summed up in a less profane sentence: I knew I had to do something.

In the whole scheme of things, that's probably all that matters. The rest of it is simply a long, convuluted story about all the things that compel me. As, I am sure, there are equally compelling stories from many Angels. Still, forgive me if I feel equally compelled to share the story. I hope that our other angels will someday do the same so that we can add our story to those young men and women who serve and whom we serve with pride and honor.

Like many, my family has served our country in its major conflicts for over 100 years (both the maternal and paternal branches of my family being relatively "new" to the country). Everyone was a volunteer. Until my younger brother, no one had ever made a career out of it. For the most part, the call to duty would be made, they would serve their time and then come home.

My great-great uncle "Babe" Howard was a doughboy in the trenches of France during WWI. My grandfather joined the Navy in 1944 at the tender age of 17. In fact, he blackmailed his mom and dad into signing the paperwork. Something along the lines of "sign this or I'll run away, fake my birth certificate and join anyway". Everybody was apparently doing it according to my grandfather. My grandmother said that he spent most of his time going from port to port, drinking and getting into trouble. Along with being the featherweight champion of the fleet. My grandfather vaguely confirmed these stories with rather benign versions of his adventures, to which my grandmother would roll her eyes and shake her head.

It wasn't until the summer I was 17 that I knew anything else. I was and still am a rather prolific reader. I get on tangents and must read everything about a subject. That year I was hooked on World War II and would spend hours in the library getting books and reading. During that summer, the summer before my grandfather died, I spent an equal amount of time sitting on my grandparents' front porch, just talking about anything and everything. My grandfather was a history buff, too (I think it's in the genes) and we would talk about all sorts of things, but never really about his service. All I knew were those funny stories and the picture of my grandfather, looking every bit a boy playing dress up, in his dress Navy blues.

One day, as we sat on the porch eating Gates BBQ and drinking ice tea, we were talking about a book I had just read about the war in the Pacific when my grandfather mentioned that he was at Okinawa. He said, on the first day of the attack, the fleet was bombarding the island and the first thing he saw of direct combat was watching a naval artillery shell disintegrate a very large house on the cliffs of Okinawa. He assumed it was some nobleman's house. He wondered idley if the man was at home and what had happened to the family (reports indicate that there were over 140,000 civilian casualties on Okinawa). As the invasion got underway, they asked for volunteers to drive the LSTs (flat bottomed boats). He was qualified to do so, so he did.

He made several trips back and forth, ferrying men and supplies, then bringing back the dead and wounded. The seas were rough due to a recent typhoon. What he said he remembered was kind of vague. He remembered men being sick on the crossing. He remembered the wounded, dying and dead. He remembered the red frothy water at the bottom of the boat.

Then he said that Gates BBQ always went better with beer and he got up and went into the house. I remember Gramms sitting quietly on the porch swing, pushing it back and forth with one foot. She said that he never told anybody that story. Then Grandpa came back out with his bottle of beer, teasing grandma about giving me one. She scolded him, saying in that way she had, drawing out the first syllable of his name, "Lee-roy, I better not see you giving her a beer!" Everybody laughed and that was that.

He died that September and I realized that there was this man that I had always loved and respected, but I was missing a big chunk of his life. What I knew of his service boiled down to a few funny stories, a brief conversation on the front porch, a few letters he had saved from his parents and that picture on the wall that he had sent to his parents with a brief note scribbled on the back saying he was alright and not to worry about him.

My mom's (much) older brother served in both the Army and the Air Force. I have his medals and his discharge papers. He served in the Army of Occupation in Germany. His dad had migrated from Germany in 1921 during the build up of militias and the subsequent "little wars" between these groups fighting over the power vaccuum caused by the collapse of the German Monarchy and the weak Weimar Republic. I don't know the entire story accept to say that my great-grandfather gave my grandfather some money and told him to leave. He never heard from or saw his immediate family again. He stowed away on a boat with a friend in 1921 and came to the United States. Yes, my grandfather was the original "illegal immigrant".

What's that got to do with anything? Well, he spoke German, of course, and, thus, so did my uncle to some degree. Which is how my uncle ended up in the American quarter of Berlin just prior to the Berlin Airlift doing clerical work. Even before the airlift, the Soviets were blocking or delaying supplies. My uncle took supplies down to the crossings to give to some of his cousins he had found in the city. Later he would take a small part in the clerical paper pushing, ordering and distribution of supplies for the airlift.

After he left the army, he kicked around for awhile and then decided that the military was for him, so he joined the Air Force and went to Korea at the height of the Korean War. From later comments, I took it that he seriously disliked Communism. His few remaining family members were now firmly trapped behind the "iron curtain"; on the Communist side. Two years later he was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis and had to leave the military.

Like my grandfather, I didn't really know much about his service until a few years ago. I guess no one ever asked him. He still had a card my mom, then six, sent him in her girlish, crayon writing. My mom still has a silk baseball jacket with a dragon embroidered on the back he sent her from Korea. He died in 2005 and was given a full military burial in Leavenworth National Cemetary.


My dad's brother served in Vietnam. He volunteered immediately after his 18th birthday in December of 1968 during major protests and draft card burnings. Depending on who you ask in the family, there are different reasons for his volunteering. If you ask my Dad, it's because my grandma was smothering him as the "baby" (my dad and aunt having already left the "nest"). My Grandma said it was because my dad was A1 for the draft, married and my mom was pregnant. If he joined, my dad's status would be revised down since he already had a brother serving. My uncle said it was because it was the right thing to do.

He was a door gunner and crew chief on a Huey with the Black Widows, Charlie Company, 101st Airborne stationed in Phu Bai. He was shot down twice. One of which garnered him a Bronze Star with "V" device when he and the injured door gunner held off a superior VC force with one operating 60mm, four M-16s with four clips each and a couple of hand grenades. The two pilots were severely injured. They were eventually rescued by more Huey's and attack helicopters.

His second Bronze Star was for taking part in the rescue of over 400 personnel from FSB Ripcord. He received one purple heart for taking shrapnel from his M-60 when it was struck by enemy fire. He actually had several other awards, but some he couldn't get because his activities were still considered "classified" after all that time.

Like the other family members, I really didn't know that much about his service. He never really talked about it besides a few offhanded comments about being a door-gunner and crew chief. I knew he had a black widow tattoed on his arm. Then, in 2000 I went over to his house to visit and he was watching the History Channel (I said it ran in the genes). It was showing something about Vietnam. We started talking about the history and the episode being shown and the next thing I know he was telling me about being there and things that happened, both funny and sad.

One funny story he told me was about getting letters and packages from home. His mom (my grandmother) would send him letters and things from home. But, like our own experience in the Angels, he was a "silent soldier" and didn't write back. Well, my grandmother was getting upset because there were terrible things on the news, men were going MIA and she did not know where he was or what was going on. She tried to get the army to tell her, but no one would tell her anything except that he was still listed as active and she should just keep writing him, he would write back eventually.

Well, you'd have to know my grandmother. That was simply NOT going to satisfy her. So she called the White House. Yep, she called President Nixon. Talked to him, too. Told him she didn't give a damn about his war, but he better find out where her son was and why he was never "allowed" to write her or she was going to come to the White House with the Media and start "a ruckus". (Yes, if you must know, the FBI did investigate my grandparents). Apparently, it worked because a few days later, my uncle unknowing of the phone call, was called to the battalion commander's office. He said he kept going over the last few days to see what he'd done to get called to the commander's office. Of course, he had got up to some things, but he thought they were just regular things that all the guys were doing.

When he was shown into the Commander's office, he told my uncle to wait "there". The commander opened the door and told the clerk to put the call through. It was my grandmother. She gave him an earful about not writing her and demanded to know that he was "okay". After an embarrassing conversation with my grandmother, commander standing on the other side of the desk staring at him, he promised my grandmother he would write her back. There was my uncle, 20 something, a sergeant and crew chief responsible for expensive equipment and the lives of men, being dressed down by his mom; in the commanders office.

When he hung up, he had to wait to be dismissed by the commander. After several moments of uncomfortable silence, the commander proceeded to tell him that my grandmother had called the White House and threatened the president who, having taken my uncle's information, had called the Army Chief of Staff, who had my uncle tracked down and the information passed down the chain of command. His commander handed him some paper, pencils and envelopes then told him that he was ORDERED to write a letter to his mother once a week. The letter was to be brought to his office for verification and mailing, come hell or highwater. He didn't care if my uncle had to fly back from wherever in the middle of the night with SAMs up his tailboom. If not, my uncle was going to be doing very unpleasant duty at the commander's pleasure (something about permanent latrine duty and burning the refuse thereof).

Needless to say, he wrote my grandmother religiously after that. He did complain to her about the embarrassment (the story now getting around base and he being the butt of several jokes), but she told him she didn't regret it and next time he better answer her letters.

Let that be a lesson to all soldiers with mothers: write or call your mom because you really don't want the commander to know your name because your mommy called.

A few weeks later I was visiting my uncle again and I noticed something new on the table. It was a shadow box with awards and patches. Thirty years and I had never seen any of them. Of course, I was impressed by the various awards, ribbons and patches. He asked me if I wanted to go to an exhibit of a Vietnam era Huey that was travelling from state to state. It was a really fantastic experience to get a first hand history lesson, sit in the cockpit and then in the "door gunner's" position (wow, that space was small). We talked some more about his experiences. He still laughed about my grandma calling the president and, even though he gave her a hard time about it, he told me that the letters from home always reminded him why he was there and that he had something to look forward to when his tour was done. It reminded him that, no matter what happened there, somebody gave a damn about whether he lived or died.

He told me when he came back, he was getting off the plane at a major airport on the West Coast (guess where) when he saw the first thing that stunned him: a huge group of protestors standing on the otherside of the chain link fence seperating the public areas from the tarmac. They were screaming obscenities, calling him a baby killer and a Nazi, and, yes, even spitting in his general direction. That wasn't the last incident, either. Eventually, he just didn't tell anyone that he was in the military. It was too painful. He felt betrayed and that his friends, those who died and were wounded, were betrayed, too. He felt like nobody gave a damn.

It took thirty years and someone to give a damn so he could give a damn, too.

He died last year from pneumonia brought on by complications with his multiple diseases that the VA doctors estimated were due to his exposure to Agent Orange (the only way they could explain the bizarre rashes and other health issues). He was buried in Kansas City with military honors, just a few feet away from my grandparents.

I still miss him.

He taught me to give a damn.

If you enjoyed this story, please stay tuned for a second post regarding my brother's service, funerals in the desert and finding Soldiers' Angels.

- May no soldier go unloved