Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Kids Are Alright

September 14, 2007

Where I grew up, it was common to see kids living in the same house with their grandma's, great aunts, or both. I lived with my grandparents for a year in a little mountain community called Pilot when I was 8 years old. They were in their 50's at the time, and I was part of the old-time formula that said, "Children are to be seen, not heard." I remember asking my grandmother often 'why does Poppaw hate me?', because I was not used to such a stern attitude from a man who had just retired from 31 years of Army Infantry life. "Oh, Honey, your grandfather certainly doesn't hate you. He's like that because he had to be in charge of lots of men and had to keep them in line all the time. I try to tell him he needs to show his love for you boys more often", she would tell me.

I became a young boy who would actually listen to his grandpa, and do what he said, then feel bad if I didn't measure up to what he'd said. There were several times I disappointed him, but I was a child then, of course. As I got older, I was able to put things in better perspective, looking at him with a total view, instead of just the view from a waist-high kid. A lot of the blanks were filled in when I enlisted for 4 years as an Infantryman with the 82nd Airborne in Ft Bragg, NC. "Why in the world would you want to jump out of a perfectly good airplane", Poppaw would ask his 18 yr-old grandson back then. It was a common refrain that I came to hear from Army personnel who hadn't volunteered to go to jump school. Kind of a "You're nuts", comment without saying it. It had been around in the Army's lexicon for at least 40 years at that point, one that my Poppaw had said a few times himself to others before me.

I laughed and shrugged my shoulders. Too embarrassed to say something like, "To test myself". Here was an accomplished Command Sergeant Major with most every medal and badge the Army can bestow upon an Infantry soldier on his dress greens…except for jump wings,… good-naturedly asking an E-1 private why he's doing such a fool-hardy thing as to jump out of airplanes at midnight. It was a good moment for me, because, in his veiled comment, he was also saying to me, "I'm proud of you, Son". Meant a lot to me because I never heard those words from my own father.

With this backdrop, it may become more clear as to why I look at those older than me with respect. Or, at least, I try to. When I see a head full of grey hair on a man, I'm instinctively attaching a lot of respect and desire to hear his stories of bravery and valor, even though I'm 40, and have accumulated my own stories of bravery and valor in my travels. I still assume that that man has been through a lot, has interesting stories to tell, and has lead a respectful life. These naïve notions still haven't been beaten out of me, despite having lived all over the world, and having seen my fair share of things that are quite the contrary. I still have faith, yet I have a friend who is my age who hasn't ever left the state he was born in, doing the same line of work he started in as a kid, who sometimes treats me like I need to learn something about people. It's funny, but I let him talk down to me because it would be too long of a conversation to say just how shallow his perception of me really is. Plus, he's my friend.

But I quickly lose my naiveté about that anonymous grey-haired man when he opens his mouth to say certain things. Things like, "I don't know what's wrong with today's youth. They aren't taking to the streets to stop this war machine." I used to almost do a double-take when I heard these things coming out of elderly men's mouths. Back a few years ago, that is. Now, on our 6th anniversary of 9-11, it is sadly all too common to hear this alarming comment coming from men who think that they've done something patriotic or at least honorable in their lives, like 'take to the streets in protest'.

See, I'm someone who assumes that we men in America share a common experience. 'What I went through is what he went through', kind of sentiment. I assume that men in their 50's and 60's (and beyond), have done the same things to conquer their fears as I have. If they haven't served in the military as I have, then at least they have respect for the men who did sacrafice themselves for us throughout the history of our great nation. Surely they feel the same way I do when they read the same article in the newspaper, detailing the life of Jason Dunham. He is the first Marine to (posthumously) receive the Medal of Honor since the war in Afghanistan and Iraq began. Frankly, while reading the story from Peter Benesh, reporter for Investor's Business Daily, I almost started to cry. And that doesn't happen much for me.

Twenty years ago, I didn't have the perspective to understand the Aging Baby Boomer as I do now. I just wrote them off as being fun-loving hippies. I was, at most, resentful of those who treated our country with disdain as draft-dodgers, and the men and women who insulted, even spat upon, returning Vietnam veterans. See, I was in the Army with NCO's who were IN Vietnam during the war, and remained as career soldiers when the war was over in 1975. I knew those stories from many men who made me proud to be an American man.

Twenty years later, I still prefer to assume that the Baby Boomer generation has seen the error of their ways, and realized that it's best to face down your fears. 'With age comes wisdom', I still believe.

The truth is, however, despite my naivete', that as many of these Boomers get into their mid 60's and 70's, they are still holding on to the same emotions that they covered themselves with in their late teens and 20's. They haven't progressed. They haven't lead a brave life, and they probably hate themselves because of it. At the end of their lives, as they reflect on the terrible injustices they committed against our great nation, they are so weak and cowardly that they STILL can't admit they were wrong. So they turn their anger on my generation, and try to act like THEY can teach us something about being an American. It is common to hear one of these grey-haired children say, "Patriotism isn't defined as protecting this country, it's defined as PROTESTING against this country".

If that's what they need to tell themselves, so be it. The irony is that the only reason they CAN make their misguided protests against this country is because of us quiet, strong men who didn't think twice when our country needed us.

I am more proud of my X generation right now than I have ever been. When I was through with my 4 years with the 82nd Airborne Infantry, 2nd Infantry Division, and finally at the 101st Air Assault, I left with a strong sense of accomplishment, and much older than the 4 years I'd spent with the US Army. After 8 months as a civilian, who thought he was free and clear of the death-defying training I completed honorably, I received a Western Union telegram, taped to my door one day in January, 1991. It was orders to come back into the Army. I wasn't in the National Guard, the Reserves, or anything similar. I just happened to be a former infantry soldier, and as a fine print part of my enlistment, all of us men who join are part of a pool of people whom the US government can exhaust before America starts up the draft again.

I was given seven days' notice before I was to report to Ft Benning, Ga. I had no forewarning that this emergency recall would take place. It was a shock to me, my family, my girlfriend, and everyone who knew me. During that week before I was to rejoin the Army, two friends of mine from high school, a married couple by now, took me out for a short breakfast to say goodbye. What I thought was a nice gesture on their part, to show support and solidarity with me, turned into an effort to "talk me out of it".

"John, this is a war of blood for oil", I remember one of them saying to me. I was in another world, mentally, at the time. I had already started a mental preperation of fortitude and resolution. (We all know how brief that war was, now, but at the time, all we were told was that Iraq had "the 4th largest army in the world", their spokesmen were saying that they will fill the streets with "rivers of American blood", and so forth. What was in my mind was the way nerve gas kills a person. Here I was, an infantry soldier [not a cook, a motorpool mechanic, or a finance clerk], suiting up to do battle with a monster who gassed his own people. What do you think he is going to do to the infantry soldiers of the opposing Army?)

"Blood for oil?", I asked. "Do you really believe that?"

THEM: "John, it's just not right that you have to go. Couldn't you just not show up?"

ME: "Well, let me ask you something, Marc. If I didn't show up, and my brothers I served with didn't show up, who would they have to replace me with—you?"

That seemed to quiet their tone a little bit. But the look of determination and mission was still in their eyes. In another setting, I could have been mad at them. Here I was, having to suddenly quit my dream job as a DJ at a great radio station, drop out of full-time college I was enrolled in, and the only thing that my two friends here could think to say to me was their own unpatriotic notions of "setting me straight". Again, though, I was in a different world, mentally. I was preparing to do battle, and that meant that I was resolving to die. Nothing like these two in front of me was going to get me angry. I was already past them, and the cowardly impulses they were trying to fill me with.

Little has changed in my spirit or my being since those days.

If you can't see a reason to defend and protect this Great Nation, then it's because you aren't looking. If you don't see that it's best to fight these jackals in their own backyard instead of ours, then you're a fool. For a great country like ours, with all of its military technology and armament, to send in brave countrymen to do surgical, room-to-room fighting with the enemy instead of simply dropping any of the mighty bombs at our disposal…makes me weep with admiration for the men who volunteer to continue this noble fight for our way of life.

The break with our former generation, the "Woodstock Generation", is a very clean, deep, deliberate break. I will forever go to my grave looking forward at the Y Generation and beyond as the best answer to the dangerous cowardice we all had to endure from these idiotic Baby Boomers. What could have been a definite careening over the cliff for the vehicle we call America, was rescued when the X and Y generation grabbed the wheel, and steered it back on course.

Yes indeed, the kids are alright.

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