I am not a veteran, but some people think I am.
I am partial to baseball caps and have dozens of them, representing places I have been (Alaska, Guam, Normandy), my schools (Temple, St. Joe), sports (Eagles, Phillies), and the military (U.S. Army, USS New Jersey BB-62, USS Slater DE-766).
It’s the last two I want to talk about.
The USS New Jersey cap I bought when I toured that grand lady parked in the Delaware, guarding her namesake state. Lots of people have heard of the ship they called the Big J, but few have heard of the Slater, a destroyer escort.
She is being restored in Albany by a group of volunteers, including one of my oldest friends, Gordon Lattey, the guy who gave me my first newspaper job, in Brooklyn College, as a reporter for the school newspaper. When I learned he was involved, I made a donation and received a Slater cap.
And when I wear it around town, passersby sometimes thank me for my service.
The first time it happened, it caught me by surprise. The cap doesn’t say “veteran” as some caps do. I wondered if they saw me wearing a Phillies cap, would they think I was on the team?
When I get the “thanks,” it is often in passing. I don’t like getting credit for things I haven’t done, but it’s not usually possible — or necessary? — for me to explain I did not serve aboard the proud ship.
So what do I do? When thanked, I reply, “You’re welcome,” or “My pleasure.”
I did not serve because no one asked me to. I was eligible for the draft, but had my first child when I was 22, and in college. (College didn’t get me a deferment because it was night school and I was not taking a full credit load. I was too busy editing the school newspaper, which also didn’t provide a deferment.)
Only a couple of my friends were drafted. Another volunteered for the Navy, rose to the rank of commander and wound up commanding the Willow Grove Air Station. I attended the ceremony when he took over. Here was a guy I hired in college to be a news editor of a Brooklyn weekly I ran, and 30 years later, he’s wearing whites and gold braid (after working for the AP and then sliding into politics, working for GOP officials in communications).
That’s you, Commander Edmund J. Pinto.
My closest friend now was drafted in the ‘50s and spent most of his tour in Alaska, preventing a Russian invasion from the north and west.
My uncles all served in WWII. None were in combat and none were harmed. My Uncle Joe — the only college grad in the family — was an officer and wrote a history of the CBI Command. That was China, Burma, India, a forgotten pocket of the war where my favorite uncle, Sonny, served for a while, reportedly running a Sgt. Bilko operation smuggling consumer goods over the Himalayas to U.S. troops who needed them. My father was 4-F.
Uncle Sonny brought me home some great souvenirs — helmets, Indian knives, Chinese puzzles, foreign currency and military arm patches. He was an MP for a while and I was disappointed I didn’t get his .45.
Those were the veterans around me. No one talked much about WWII, it was in the past. And it was a good war.
More was said about Vietnam. That’s because it was a “bad” war, partly because we lost and partly because the ugliness of war was brought into living rooms each night by TV. Critics accused the U.S. of war crimes, and in a few cases, there might have been something to it.
But I never indulged myself to call returning troops “baby killers,” as some did.
I never confused the government’s strategy with the individual soldier following orders. I mean legitimate orders.
Not having a draft is both good and bad.
Good was the social interaction of men — and women — from all across the country, and every income level. And making the government think twice about the use of force. Bad is forcing people to do things they don’t want to do.
Anyway, the draft is gone, has been for a while.
What we have now is a military that is 1% of the population, almost like a warrior caste.
They are not dregs. The modern military has no room for dregs.
I admit my mental scorecard always attaches a plus to any veteran. Yeah, maybe not all are gems, but I will give the extra credit freely and hope I never have reason to withdraw.
On this day, their day, I say thank you to all who have served. The way I see it, you have not just served your country, you have served me. I take it personally.