Veterans Day 2020: “feet wet”

Union Civil War General Willam Tecumseh Sherman is credited with this simple three word assessment:  “War is hell.”

I believe General Sherman was correct. 

Somewhere in America today one of our Veterans will commit suicide.

Somewhere in America today a Veteran is unemployed.

Somewhere in America today a Veteran is homeless.

Somewhere in America today a Veteran is fighting an addiction.

Somewhere in America today a Veteran is fighting to rehabilitate a body debilitated in war.

Somewhere in America today a Veteran is in post-psychological anguish from the trauma of losing a fellow soldier in battle.

Somewhere in America today parents, siblings, spouses, children, and friends search for healing in their hearts because their loved one did not come home.

Somewhere in America today, a quiet, humble Veteran will die alone.

Yes, General Sherman, war and the remnants of war are hell.

During World War II, my father’s family experienced that hell. His oldest brother Boyd was killed while serving his country on the USS Simms a Navy destroyer. That ship was attacked by Japanese fighter planes in the Coral Sea.

I remember looking into the faces of the Pate family at Davis Street Methodist Church after they lost their oldest son, Robbie, in the Vietnam War. I don’t think the sadness ever left their faces, and I know that loss never left their hearts.

And, I recall one Christmas gathering of the Pike family during our terrorists wars in the Middle East. My cousin Stuart’s oldest son, Adam, a Marine described how in clearing a house in Iraq, he had a close call. He came within one click, one pull of a trigger to losing his life.

As required, I registered for the draft during the Vietnam War. I was a college student, my draft number was never called. I have no idea what I would have done if I had been drafted. 

But over the years, I have developed a deep respect for Veterans. And in that respect, just like in me, I know there are imperfections in their service and careers. Yet, still I believe their service and sacrifice is why America is still hanging around.

And as an American, I will tell you that I was disgustedly ashamed when then presidential candidate, Donald Trump, bashed Senator John McCain for being shot down in the Vietnam War. 

Senator McCain was captured by the North Vietnamese and held as a prisoner of war for five and a half years. I don’t understand how anyone could say or embrace such warped comments about a prisoner of war.

My Losing Season by Pat Conroy is one of my favorite books. In the book, Mr. Conroy writes about his senior year of playing college basketball at The Citadel. To develop the book, Mr. Conroy finds his former teammates and interviews each one.

But one of the most moving interviews was with Al Kroboth. Mr. Kroboth served in the Vietnam war as a navigator in the A-6 jet fighter. During a mission, the plane was attacked by the North Vietnamese. Somehow, Mr. Kroboth was able to bailout before the plane crashed.

I do not know how Mr. Kroboth survived his barefooted march through the jungles of Vietnam with broken bones, infections, and hostile treatment, but he did.

In the interview, Mr. Kroboth, his wife, and Mr. Conroy wept many times as they learned about Captain Kroboth’s experiences.

But, when he was released, Captain Kroboth described what it was like as the POWs waited at the airport in Hanoi to prepare for departure. 

As the C-141 taxied to the gate,  what caught his attention was the tail of the plane. It featured the largest American flag he had ever seen. When Captain Kroboth saw that flag he wept.

As the POWs boarded the plane, Captain Kroboth described an eerie quietness as they prepared for take off. The pilot told them to get seated. He was concerned about low cloud cover. But, he was determined to get them up, and out of there.

That quietness remained among the POWs as the plane rose and climbed for altitude.

Minutes ticked. 

When the voice of the pilot returned over the speakers, he stated: “feet wet, feet wet.” That meant the plane was out over the ocean, they had cleared North Vietnam airspace. With those words, the hushed cabin of the plane filled with cheers.

I hope on this Veterans Day, you will find a Veteran and thank that  man or woman with all your heart.

And I pray that I will always remember that I’m still hanging around today because in the hell of war Veterans got their “feet wet” for America.

American flag West Hartford, Connecticut October 2020 Bill Pike

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