I’m not a veteran, and therein lies a story.
I was in college during the height of the Vietnam War and all the protests that were de rigueur on college campuses in those days. I was getting sick of going to school and since I was a a card-carrying member of Young Americans for Freedom, I decided it was my duty to do something more constructive than just debating left-wingers in the student lounge.
It was 1971, my year in the lottery. When my number (109; I still remember it) was called, I did some serious soul-searching and some even more serious academic reassessment and decided now was the time to take a stand.
I gave up my II-S student deferment and headed to Indianapolis on the 4:30 a.m. bus from Fort Wayne for my physical. I passed, which is exhibit number one for how desperate the Army was back then to fill the infantry ranks.
They sent me back home, which I wasn’t expecting, and then I waited. And waited. And waited. No letter came.
On Dec. 31, I figured that I had somehow escaped the draft. So I proposed to my future wife and we drove to my parents’ home to tell them. Waiting for me there was a letter from the draft board informing me that my new draft classification was now I-H. I-H?
I-H status essentially meant that we somehow missed you but you are still in our sights. Plan to be drafted in the next call-up.
I never got drafted and we got married. Now fast forward about 30 years. My wife was serving as a Lutheran school teacher and principal. One Veterans’ Day she asked several veterans of the congregation to come in to speak to the children. This was still while military service was not talked about, especially by veterans themselves . . . unless they were among only themselves.
She came home that night and asked me why I hadn’t told her that my Dad was in D-Day. He wasn’t, I replied. That’s not what he just told my class, she said as the final word.
One recollection of my childhood is my Dad’s photos of his destroyer escort docked in Athens and Rome. He was Sixth Fleet after all, and that was where it was based. But that was the Korean War. He was called back up from the Reserves for Korea and was on ship when I was born in 1951. My earliest photo of him and me together is at my Baptism when he was on leave to attend.
Dad never talked about The Big One, as WWII veterans call it. And for good reason. Courtesy of a bunch of grade schoolers, I now know that my Dad was part of D-Day. He served on an LST (landing ship, tank) that was in the second wave, while the German artillery was still firing.
When I was in my 60s and he was in his 90s, he finally told me how his ship took tanks and soldiers up to Omaha beach to unload them and then spent the rest of the day transporting casualties back to England. No wonder he didn’t want to talk about it, and certainly to his children.
That’s the way it was with the WWII veterans. They didn’t want to talk about it, especially when they saw what many in this country did to and said about Vietnam veterans. Fortunately we have come a long way since then. Nearly every other pillar of American-Christian culture has been assaulted in the past decade, but there remains a healthy respect and appreciation for veterans. Just go to any sporting event or civic parade.
So what do I do to honor my Dad and his service? His service has allowed me to become a Son of the American Legion. Not only does that give me the opportunity to support veterans in a tangible way, but also to work alongside these patriots to promote Americanism and all that our country stands for.
As the preamble to the constitution of the Sons of the American Legion (SAL) states: “Proud possessors of a priceless heritage . . .” and then frames the organization’s purpose using words like democracy, freedom, justice, and Americanism. It ends with the words: “To assist in carrying on for God and Country.” I don’t want my SAL brothers to know, but I tear up every meeting when I recite this.
And I am still classified I-H; I have the draft card to prove it. If America ever gets into a major war again that requires Congress to reinstate the draft, I and thousands of other 67 year-olds will be in the front lines. Assuming of course that we don’t all die from heart attacks in basic training.
Thank you, all you veterans out there and God Bless America.
Mark Franke, an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review, is formerly an associate vice chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.