The Few, The Proud

Tomorrow is Veterans Day, a day of remembrance and appreciation for all who have served the United States of America with military service. It originated as Armistice Day, a commemoration of all who fought and died in The Great War, which we now call World War I. While the war was not officially over until the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on June 28, 1919, it effectively ended during the armistice that began at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of the previous year: November 11, 1918. In 1919, President Woodrow Wilson dedicated the day to forever honor the memory of those who died, stating,

“To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations…”

In 1954, after the Second World War and the Korean War saw new generations of military servicemen deployed to combat, President Dwight Eisenhower had the name of the day officially changed to Veterans Day. For a brief time it was observed on a Monday like many other federal holidays, but since it has such a vivid identity with November 11 it was replaced to that day where it continues to be observed in appreciation of all service men and women, living and dead. Many other countries, like England and its commonwealths, observe Remembrance Day on November 11th, also called Poppy Day because of their appearance in John McCrae’s poem In Flanders Fields.

Everybody knows somebody who has served in the military, whether it be a family member, friend, or curmudgeonly neighbor. Many of us have seen memorials erected to honor these heroes from certain conflicts or branches, or all of them. The picture I’ve included at the top is very near and dear to me. You may recognize it as the Marine Corps War Memorial near Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia not far from Washington D.C. Finished in 1954, it is an enormous bronze rendering of the eternally iconic photograph taken by Joe Rosenthal in 1945 as he observed the second flag raising on the top of Mount Suribachi on the Japanese island Iwo Jima (the first flag was deemed too small, so they later put up the larger one in the picture). It immediately became the image most associated with the United States Marine Corps, and is perhaps the most reproduced picture of all time.

The man in the striped shirt being dwarfed by the memorial (and cut off from the chest down by the title) in the title picture is my father. He served as a Marine from 1968-1970, but as they say, “Once a Marine – Always a Marine” and growing up in my father’s household I could see this was very true. My father died in 2007 from malignant melanoma (put on sunscreen, kids), but before he did he wrote a memoir of his incredible life, and I’d like to share some excerpts from his years in the Marines with you now. They act as an account of the time, offering a front row seat to the Vietnam War and Marine Corps boot camp – a seat that my father fought very hard to get. After his pre-induction physical it was determined he had a hernia which disallowed him from military service. Yet my dad wanted to go to fight in Vietnam and had surgery to ensure he would be able to pass the USMC’s requirements. He was operated on at the hospital his mom (my grandma) worked at and became a surgical celebrity on the ward, partly because people knew his mother well, and partly because many thought he was insane to want to fight in Vietnam. Keep in mind that we live in a different era now, one where, for the most part, our military personnel are given the warm welcome they deserve when they return home. During the Vietnam War there were some different sentiments towards veterans that you will get a taste of through my father’s story. Thankfully, times have changed for the better. You will probably also observe, as I did as I reread his passages, that his writing style, like mine, is taken very much from how he spoke to people, and furthermore, that colloquialism was very much passed down from him to me. His words are in italics. Enjoy.

I arrived at Marine Corps Recruit Depot (MCRD) San Diego on the night of August 22, 1968. Recruits always arrive at night and they will be up all night and all day the next day and their lives will be a frenzy. For instance, I was up all night cleaning the head (bathroom) in the receiving barracks. This is accomplished on your hands and knees with a toothbrush. Hell had begun.

The very first thing you get in boot camp is a haircut. I had befriended a few guys while on the flight to California, but I had trouble recognizing anyone after that haircut. We all looked so different. After the haircut, we were issued our utility uniforms (the Army calls them fatigues). Everything is carried in a large duffel bag called a sea bag. We were assigned a training platoon and met our drill instructors (never call them DI’s).

We then were taken to our platoon area, where we would live for the next several weeks. Squad assignments were made by alphabetical order, so my friends and I were in separate Quonset huts. Quonset huts are those quaint little buildings made of corrugated steel with curved sides and roof. The floors were concrete. Inside were several sets of bunk beds and a heating stove. As it was August, we did not need to light the stove.

While marching to our new homes in the (very) early morning, I couldn’t help wondering what the hell I had gotten myself into. After dropping off our sea bags, we were herded to the mess hall for breakfast. The rest of that first day was spent picking up our new equipment, which included a helmet, web belt, rifle and bayonet.


The purpose of Marine boot camp is to prepare recruits for the rigors of war. It is a time for getting into the physical condition that will allow you to carry out your mission and survive (“Good Marines don’t die for their country. Good Marines see to it the enemy dies for his”). Recruits are fed as much as they can eat and exercised until they drop. When I arrived at MCRD, I weighed 145 pounds. When I graduated, I weighed 170 pounds and none of it was fat.

Another purpose of boot camp is to foster teamwork. We had to learn to rely on each other and to be reliable. This is the purpose of close order drill training, but we also helped each other out during inspections. Everybody has something they are good at. Some guys were good at shining shoes, some guys were good at mopping floors. I was good at cleaning rifles and making beds (that last one surprised my mother). We performed a task we were good at to help each other get through inspections.


Recruits are called many things while in boot camp, such as turd, maggot, or scum, but never Marine. You only become a Marine upon successfully completing recruit training. That is when you receive your Eagle, Globe, and Anchor. It is an exclusive club and once you earn the title, you carry it forever: “Once a Marine – Always a Marine.” To this day, if I am identified as a Marine I am greeted with a “Semper Fi” or “Oorah”. We are all brothers.

After boot camp comes the Infantry Training Regiment (ITR), which for San Diego graduates (a.k.a. “Hollywood Marines”) is at Camp Pendleton. Camp Pendleton is one of the largest Marine bases in the U.S. and is located along the Pacific Coast between San Diego and Los Angeles. On the East Coast, MCRD is at Parris Island, South Carolina. Camp Lejuene is up the road in North Carolina.

New Marines are assigned their MOS (Military Occupational Status) upon graduation. This is the primary job you will be trained for. During boot camp, I had an opportunity to attend radio school. We were given a battery of tests after arriving at MCRD and I apparently scored well on the radio / communications section. I joined a half dozen other recruits from other platoons at a meeting with the colonel who ran the school. He informed us that this assignment could mean we would not leave the Continental United States. In other words, if we accepted this assignment, we might not have to serve in Vietnam. Even if we did go to ‘Nam, it was possible we would be in a rear area, away from any fighting. We would be given secret clearance because we would be handling confidential communications.

Now I had a problem. This really did not sound like anything I wanted to do, but how was I, a raw recruit, going to tell this to a Full Bird Colonel? When he asked if anyone had any questions, I raised my hand and stood up. I cleared my throat, then apologized and said I did not want to go to radio school. The colonel asked me why and I told him I joined the Marines to fight and I didn’t want to be a radio specialist. The other recruits looked at me like I must be insane. The colonel stood up with a smile on his face, shook my hand and told me to return to my platoon. When I graduated boot camp, I was assigned the MOS of 0300: Infantry. That was fine with me.

I am very proud of my dad’s tenacity to fight for his country, yet I am also very glad he made it home alive and was able to start a family in which I feature. He entered in boot camp after the Tet Offensive – one of the longest and most violent battles of the war – had started and wasn’t sent to Vietnam for combat until after it was over, so my dad dodged one big bullet before he actually was shot at. But he was still a Marine in Vietnam, and danger was ever-present. Now my belief in a higher power, as well as luck, has dwindled considerably over the years, but I can’t help but feel that something or someone was looking out for my dad on this occasion:

On the morning of May 20, 1969, we were told to saddle up and form into our squads and platoons and report to the flight deck. We were going to some place called the A Shau Valley to assist an Army unit with a little problem they had. The 101st Airborne was trying to take Hill 937. I was too young and stupid to know what was going on, but the older men had been to the “Valley of Death” before and they weren’t looking forward to going back anytime soon.

We were issued ammunition and grenades and boarded helicopters. I was on the first one (they must have chosen me by alphabetical order) and we flew in a circle waiting for the other choppers to load and lift off. All of a sudden, we headed back to the ship. The mission had been canceled. The Army had taken the objective and didn’t need assistance. After this battle, Hill 937 was nicknamed “Hamburger Hill”.

Hamburger Hill was a 10 day battle that resulted in the US abandoning its assault on the hill. It was marked by high casualties, including 72 killed in action, 372 wounded. A Life article that was later published with pictures of 241 Americans killed in one week of fighting had a few pictures from the battle, but most readers assumed that all of those deaths were from Hamburger Hill, causing it to become a very negative example of the war in the public eye. Even a movie was made about the battle, and I’m glad my dad wasn’t a real-life character in it because they didn’t call it Hamburger Hill because everybody made it out okay and in one piece.


There were plenty of battles my father did fight in and he had some close calls in and out of combat. He once stepped in a punji pit (a hole with sharpened bamboo sticks in it) but was okay thanks to his reinforced boots. He also had to evade the native wildlife occasionally, including large centipedes, snakes, and “spiders as big as your hand”. And then there was the time he and one of his friends decided to see if you can light C4 on fire (you can, and you shouldn’t; a little dab will do ya). After all that he made it out alive, and in March of 1970, my dad was sent home and provided early release which he took as he desired to begin the next phase of his life. He wanted to go back home, go to school, and become a police officer. But he still had to make that long journey from California to Ohio. As he prepared to return home, he geared up for an unwelcome reception.

I had spent the last year in Vietnam, but I wasn’t living in a vacuum. There had been antiwar demonstrations going on for years before I joined the Marines. A lot of people hated us for fighting in the war. We were called “racist war mongers” and “baby killers”. Soldiers returning home from Vietnam were spit upon and assaulted by those who claimed they stood for peace.

Before being released from active duty, we had been warned to expect hostility and to be careful. Well, I was ready for them. Anyone who wanted a piece of me was going to get more than he bargained for. I was a United States Marine and I would be damned if I was going to let any chicken shit, pot smoking, draft dodging bottom feeder make me cower. Bring ’em on!

As I walked through the airport concourse, my uniform and Vietnam decorations identified me as a veteran of the war. I scanned everyone I passed, looking for any hint of anger or resentment. I watched body language, looking for telltale signs of approaching trouble.

A nicely dressed woman in her early thirties and carrying a small travel bag approached from the opposite direction. When she was just a few feet away, she called to me, “Oh, Corporal.”

I turned to her and said, “Yes, Ma’am?”

“Thank you.”

It was all she said. “Thank you, Ma’am,” I replied.

With that simple exchange, it seemed as though my whole body relaxed. I might not have to kill anyone today after all. I got on the plane and no one seemed to pay any undue notice. No one made any remarks about “unjust wars” or “baby killers” and I had a nice flight home.

That is one of my favorite stories my dad ever told me (and he told a lot). It always hits me hard in the best way. I can see that scene playing out with my dad tensed up, almost looking for a fight because he knows it just has to be coming, when all of a sudden a woman says the perfect thing at the perfect time: “Thank you.” This is what we should say to our veterans tomorrow and everyday because it’s what they deserve to hear from us. And there are many ways that we can say it. Find at least one that you can do tomorrow and see what grows from it. I’m not asking you to dedicate your life to the Wounded Warrior Project (it’s great if you do though!), I’m merely requesting that you show your support for our active and past military members in any small way that you can and that you continue to give at least that little bit of support throughout your life no matter how small because it adds up. What may seem simple to the point of being negligible to you may mean the world to someone coming home for the first time in a while. Bless that woman who made a simple remark to my father at LAX so many years ago, and to you if you’ve done a similar service for a servicemen. And to any veterans who may come across this at any point in the year, thank you.

I’ll leave you with some fitting final words from my dad about his tour in Vietnam. I think they apply to all generations of soldiers:

I wish I had taken more pictures of the countryside and the men I served with. I wish I had kept a journal of my experiences. I am relating these thoughts now from memory. I am sorry that I cannot remember more of the names of the guys I knew then. I also regret not staying in touch with them. They were good, brave men and I hope their lives turned out well.

Have a good week everyone,

Alex

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