I am a veteran of the United States Air Force, 1974-1978. A proud former sergeant and team member of the 6903rd Security Squadron, or “Skivvy Nine” as we called ourselves. A squadron, even today, stationed on a mountaintop somewhere in South Korea, in a mundane building with no windows and tight security. We worked hard – and long. Our job was in the wonderful field of “military intelligence”, considered an oxymoron by those who don’t really know any better. I kid about it myself. But I can’t really tell you any more about the job. Otherwise, I’d have to kill you, as they say. And that would be difficult – because everyone knows, they don’t give guns to the Air Force. We might hurt ourselves.
I take occasional good-natured crap from some of my Marine Corps buddies and my son for having been in the Air Force. But that’s okay. They’re usually jealous because we always had the newest barracks, the most modern bases, the best food – while they often slept in muddy foxholes and ate K Rations for weeks on end. But I had made my choice freely. And so had they. That was one advantage of the then newly-formed “volunteer army”. You could choose your branch of service before some group of well-meaning local townsfolk – your friendly neighborhood draft board – chose it for you. I narrowly escaped the draft a couple of years earlier. Many didn’t.
I once met Pak Chung He, the militant President of South Korea in the 1970s. Well, okay, I didn’t really meet him. But he paid a visit to our base one brisk fall day. We were under orders to turn our heads and not look at his entourage of limos if they drove by us. That’s how the South Korean government was run in those days. Sure enough, I was on base, heading for the village, when his caravan passed me. I just stood and watched. I wasn’t about to turn my head. He was assassinated a few years later. I guess someone else didn’t turn his head either.
I only once had to don a flak jacket and helmet during my three-year stint in Korea. It was after a little “skirmish” on the 38th parallel, that “no man’s land” separating South Korea from North Korea. Those little “incidents” happened every once in awhile – a consequence of having never officially ended the Korean War. A 25-years truce just doesn’t cut it (it’s now more than 50 years). But during that particular skirmish, a few guys died. So we mobilized, preparing for the worst. Our squadron didn’t leave the mountaintop for a week. “Lock down”, they call it. An interesting time. We didn’t have flak jackets or helmets before that skirmish. We were the Air Force, remember? It took the government a month to get them to us. By then, everything had died down.
I won’t deny that we didn’t have some fun in Korea. As all veterans know, GI towns pop up overnight around every U.S. military installation, especially in third world countries, which South Korea was at the time. So we had our share of nightclubs, bars, other types of “establishments”. We could get a tailored suit for $30. Shoes made to fit for $12. Jewelry stores were on every corner. It was a primitive setting, but heaven to us.
Korea was a real education too. A couple of us were scammed for a free meal by a well-dressed “slicky boy” the first time we went to Seoul. He got a free five-course meal, under the guise of introducing us to his country. When he finished eating and drinking two hours later, he got up, bowed, and said thank you. Then he simply walked out the door. We just laughed. His meal cost us all of five dollars.
We knew the language, so some of us often hiked the foothills behind the village to chum with the Buddhist monks. They were very accommodating. Their job was to care for this huge temple made of teak and pine, with rice paper sliding doors. There must have been a thousand Buddhist statues, of all sizes, in that temple. And probably five thousand lit candles. It was an eerily peaceful scene. You wouldn’t expect to see that where we were.
Our base in the countryside was ringed by rice paddies. The farmers fertilized those fields with a mixture of animal and human manure. The human manure came from the pits that we used for “toilets” in the village. The farmers would literally crawl down into those pits to retrieve the ‘fertilizer’. The rest of us just used the pits for their intended purpose – we squatted over them, did our thing, and used little torn squares of newspaper for toilet paper. Sorry if that’s too much information. I only fell in a rice paddy once. That’s usually all it takes. I never fell in one of the toilet pits.
And that was my four years in the service of my country. Big deal, huh? That’s what most veterans will tell you, if you ask them about their service – ironically, even the ones who’ve seen really tough action. Most of us are far from heroes – like firemen or policemen who just do their thing when asked. Some of us now have sons and daughters who do the same on active duty. We’re all pretty proud of them.
But, make no mistake, we do have heroes among us. In any given war zone, about 15% of the personnel of the Armed Forces are engaged in actual combat. That small percentage surprises many people, but it’s still a big number. The other 85% of us undertake roles to support their missions – certainly important stuff, but that 15% does the really tough grunt work.
So as we approach this Veterans Day, I know that all veterans appreciate you acknowledging our service – and we truly thank you. But we’d really like you to join us in saluting those frontline veterans, living and dead, who have fought our wars in close combat – and those who continue to do so today, never knowing which step might be their last. They are, unquestionably, real heroes. The veteran’s veterans. A cut above. And we’re damned proud of them.
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