By Sam Waltz
“Why would anyone want to list former employment on his driver’s license?” my correspondent asked me in a private e-mail 18 months ago.
The writer was a 40-year casual friend and colleague, who had noted and objected to a brief mention by me on Facebook that proposed legislation in the Delaware General Assembly that would add for former military service personnel a Veteran’s Status to a Delaware driver’s license was a good idea, and worthwhile.
As someone who had not served, and who regularly voiced disdain for the military, his response was to equate service in the military to someone who had been counter help at a fast food restaurant, his reference to “former employment.”
Rarely had one sentence, one question, one ignorant comment burned so deeply that it’s still emblazoned on my memory 18 months or so after I read and immediately deleted it.
Wednesday, Nov. 11, is Veterans’ Day.
I would ask each of our readers to find a veteran in her or his life, thank that woman or man, shake her or his hand, perhaps even give her or him an embrace. And, if you have a job opening you need to fill, for an employee, or a contractor, or even a vendor, think just that one day about finding a veteran.
As of late last year, America has about 22 million military veterans, about 10 percent of them women. Delaware has 78,000 veterans, about 37,000 of them 65 years old or older, and about 9,000 of them women. Over 11,000 of them receive some disability compensation, and about 26,000 of them are registered with the Veterans Affairs health care system.
The freedom and independence of this great nation, the greatest the world has known, has been won and maintained time and time again on the backs, indeed on the lives, of America’s military personnel, women and men who become veterans once they exit the service.
American veterans would disclaim the idea that their work is, or was, heroic. It was a job that needed to be done, and many, perhaps even most of them, volunteered to do, buying into the hierarchy of values, God, Country, Family.
And few — I don’t know any — have done it for recognition, benefits, or some other “goodie.” They’ve served because they felt the Call of Duty, much as clergy is “called,” and other occupations may similarly be. Few others — public safety being the notable exception — ask one to be ready to die, to offer up her or his life, so that others may live, and that America may survive, thrive, and prosper.
When the Vietnam War was peaking in 1967, I dropped out of the University of Illinois as I turned 20 to enlist. Although America’s involvement there dated to 1955, anyone who entered the military in the 1965-75 period faced a good chance of going to Southeast Asia. About 10.5 million people served in uniform then, and 3.5 million served there. Some 58,209 Americans died there, 153,303 were wounded, and 2,489 were MIA, Missing in Action.
In the Waltz Family, willingness to serve was part of being a Waltz. Although we have no family genealogists to whom to turn for details, my father Sam Waltz Sr. fought in North Africa, Sicily, Italy and elsewhere in Europe. My uncles Harry and Glenn Waltz also each served, and Uncle Glen never again was the same, suffering “battle fatigue” — what today is called PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), at the Battle of the Bulge.
None of them ever talked much about it. Dad never did. It was only within the last year that my brother going through family papers found Dad’s discharge papers, indicating Dad had been awarded four Bronze Stars in Europe. Four Bronze Stars! And I didn’t have a clue about them.
My older half brother Bob Waltz served in post-WWII, including occupied Japan. And my brother Dick Waltz ended up in Vietnamese waters, having enlisted in 1966 after high school graduation and joined the U.S. Navy, becoming a jet mechanic.
I enlisted for U.S. Army CounterIntelligence. About half of the guys who went through with me made a right turn to Vietnam where most did combat intel. The other one half of us stayed stateside, given the enormous civil disorder from anti-war dissent and even what then were called “race riots” after the April 4, 1968, killing of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Although I never served overseas — the Army based this Illinois farm boy at Broad and Cherry streets in Center City Philadelphia, where we had counterintel responsibility for Delaware and the eastern half of Pennsylvania — almost every one of us upon returning felt the hatred of so many (perhaps like my correspondent) who felt America’s misadventures in Vietnam were the fault of those of us in uniform.
Many of us — I was one — came home, stored our military gear in a duffle bag in the attic, and went on about life, as though our military service never had happened. And like my Dad, I never talked much about it, although I never was in combat, as he was.
About six to seven years ago, I was in a small winery near Cooperstown, N.Y., when I noted of another visitor his own Vietnam Veteran ball cap. I commented on his cap, he responded, and asked if I’d served. I said I had, albeit not in a combat area as he had.
“Welcome home, friend,” he told me, the first time I’d ever heard those words. I thanked him, but had to quickly turn away, lest he see the tears welling up in my eyes.
As to my correspondent, who would liken military service to “former employment,” like a fast food counter clerk, friends ask why I wouldn’t set him straight.
Frankly, I’ve responded, “he just wouldn’t understand. He wouldn’t understand at all!”