Notes from the Boonies
By Paul Wisovaty
I was talking recently with my daughter's father-in-law, a Vietnam-era Navy vet. Steve is one of the most interesting guys I know, and our mutual military experiences, and similar ages, ensure lively conversations every time we get together. On this most recent occasion, he talked about his duties during his nine years of active duty. During the first few years, Steve was in the Navy band. During the last six, he served as a submariner. Now there's a switch of MOS's! But as he was talking about his time in the Tuba and Trombone Corps, I remembered a conversation I'd had, a long time ago, with a Vietnam era vet who played in the Army band. I think it's a really poignant story, and I hope that readers will agree.
This vet served three years active, all of them as an Army band member. He didn't play for square dances at Fort Hood or ballroom gigs at the White House. Oh no. Jake played exclusively at events when Vietnam vets' caskets were coming back, I'm assuming at Arlington or maybe Dover AFB. His band unit lined up every time these things happened, and he wasn't talking about once or twice a month. They happened very frequently. I stupidly asked what kinds of songs they played, and his response — which I will never forget — was "Well, Paul, we didn't play a hell of a lot of polkas." You get the picture.
He said one other thing that has stayed with me. "Paul, I'm not a Vietnam vet, but I sure as hell feel like one." Actually, it was worse than that. He talked about how a lot of guys in his unit felt guilty that they hadn't served in Nam. Think about it. These guys were lined up three or four times a week, playing the same really heavy songs, and stood there and watched these caskets come off the plane. Grieving parents and spouses, small children, the whole story. I served in an armored cav unit in I Corps, but I don't know how I could have handled that. And this poor SOB isn't even eligible for the VFW.
So as I remember his story, I'm kind of flash forwarding to last week. The Associated Press ran a photo of a funeral of an Afghan vet, and the photo — which should win some kind of award — was of the vet's father. The shutter clicked just as the poor guy was fainting, and his daughter and someone in the color guard caught him before he hit the floor. Maybe I'm too sensitive, but I was really struck by this photo. But then I felt a little better, because I was reminded of the current Presidential campaign. I thought about how both candidates keep talking about their plans for getting us out of Afghanistan, and conceding what a really stupid idea the whole thing was to begin with, and how this country will never do anything like that again if they're elected. And then, well, I woke up.
I may be tiring you by now, but please allow me one more remembrance. Toward the end of the Korean War, which you will recall lasted only three years and not eleven, a major newspaper purposely ran the exact same war story three days in a row. Not one reader called to point that out. As I suggested in a Veteran column a year ago, maybe the NCAA finals were going on, and obviously some things are more important than others. I can almost guarantee you that any newspaper in America could do that now, about Afghanistan, and no one would notice.
Well, maybe that Afghan vet's father would notice. But why would he bother to call the paper to complain? For him anyway, it really doesn't matter anymore.
Paul Wisovaty is a member of VVAW. He lives in Tuscola, Illinois, where he works as a probation officer. He was in Vietnam with the US Army 9th Division in 1968.