Saturday, October 14, 2006

Doonesbury: The Voices of War

Doonesbury has started a new mil blog called The Sandbox, a collection of stories from those who serve.
Having read the first few stories, I'm reminded of two things: sitting with my two great-uncles, Jack and Bob, in early 2003 discussing the president's plans for war and of my old JROTC military instructor, Sergeant Taylor.
Sitting with my uncles that day, I'd thought that the best thing to do was to remain silent, listen, and learn from two men who had seen the fog of war and smelled the stench of combat more than most.
Uncle Jack served aboard the USS Alabama during World War II and saw continuous action in both the European and Pacific theatres. As a career navy man, he then went on to fight in the Korean War. Uncle Jack retired with a collection of metals most military men can only dream about, but continued to serve his country as a federal employee until his second retirement. He died of cancer that winter.
Uncle Bob enlisted to serve in the navy in World War II, but talked little of his time overseas. After the war, he returned to civilian life, spending more than three decades with the same company before a plant fire shut the company down. He died of cancer that summer, preceded in death by his beloved wife and all three of his children.
My cousin, Uncle Jack's daughter, would spend a year in Kuwait before being deployed on a classified mission to Qatar. (Of course, we wouldn't know where she'd been until after the mission was completed and declassified. There are some things we'll probably never know.)
It wasn't easy to stay silent on an issue I felt so strongly about (as anyone who knows me can attest). It was, however, productive. I was proud that day as I listened to these two men, heroes both of them, condemn the president and all those who called for war. They knew war and condemned it. I'd always admired them for their service to their country, especially as I came so very close to wearing the uniform myself. I admired them even more so on that day.

Longer ago than that, in 1991-92 when I was still a JROTC cadet snapping salutes and barking orders, Sergeant Taylor had taught me an important lesson about what it meant to be military: We leave no man behind. Sgt. Taylor served in Vietnam and had, I'm sure, seen his fair share of horror. I don't know if would have been different otherwise, but as it was, he had a way of teaching that I don't think can be adequately described. He had the habit of dropping in on us in Sgt. Vargas' class to give the profound lesson of the day. The door would swing open and Sgt. Taylor would burst in and (with Sgt. Vargas' permission) hold court for a few moments. One day he walked in and simply asked a question, "What would you do if your boss told you to pack your things because in an hour, you were going to get on a plane and probably die?"
A room full of uniformed cadets started clamoring that they'd tell their boss to go screw himself. Sgt. Taylor stood there, an odd smile on his face, before informing us that we were all full of it. If we were to continue wearing the uniform after high school, then, well, if our boss told us to do such a thing, we'd snap to and get on that plane. We would die on command.
That lesson struck home for me, as I'd decided to attend the academy after high school and use the GI bill to eventually pay for seminary. I'd intended to spend my life ministering to those who died on command. What struck home even more, however, was the T-shirt Sgt. Taylor was wearing with his Class C uniform. (That's battle dress uniform, camouflage, or "combat gear" for the uninitiated.) The sergeant had, in an uncommon occurrence for him, removed his jacket to reveal a shirt that was totally against regulations. In bold white lettering stretched across the sergeant's rather broad chest were these words, "POW. MIA. Bring them home or send us back NOW." And he meant it.
You will probably read a lot about men in uniform who condemn those who call for withdrawal. Some are of the "We don't cut and run." variety. Others simply know what Sgt. Taylor did. We leave no man behind. It's not that they support the war or don't want to go home. It's simply that they can't do it if it means leaving their brothers in the line of fire. These are men and women who will run into enemy fire to save a fellow soldier or, if necessary, to retrieve the bodies of the fallen.
In due respect for that commitment, we must find a way to get them out of there while honoring their oath to stand together and leave no man behind. It's a difficult task, one made even more so by the egregious failures of the Bush administration, but it's the least we can do.

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