Talkin’ ’bout my generation
You know, I still don’t like this war much. It’s been going on for a while, now, and I guess I was hoping I’d grow to like it. But I’m not.
I don’t have a whole lot of experience with war. None, actually.
When I was a kid I saw Vietnam on TV every day. I have a feeling my parents tried to shield my little toddler eyes from the carnage, but I knew there was a war going on. I had a pretty good idea, too, that war wasn’t such a good thing, and that people were getting hurt, and a lot of people were upset about it. The Vietnam War ended when I was six, so I didn’t get drafted.
As I grew up I knew that a lot of people had been in wars. My grandfather served in the European Theater in World War II. He was a radioman. Someday I’ll tell you about his experiences, but I generally get all teary-eyed when I think of it and I’m at work so today’s not the day for that. Grandpa served in the Iowa Army National Guard for about a zillion and a half years, retiring as a Master Sergeant. So I knew that people that were about my grandpa’s age may have been in World War II, but you could never really tell by looking at them if they’d served or not.
By the time I was 16 I realized that anyone over the age of 30 or so may have served in Vietnam. The next year, when I turned 17, I joined the Army National Guard myself. Quite a few of people I served with had been in Vietnam, and you could sort of tell, just by looking at their eyes.
I remember in 1985 looking at the group photo on the wall in the armory, taken in 1970 or so, when the unit left for Vietnam. That photo sure looked like ancient history. But we were using some of the same equipment, and there were still a few of the guys in the unit who were in that photo, including the First Sergeant. You know, in 1985, that photo was only 15 years old… But 15 years is a lifetime to a 17-year-old kid.
I noticed that people gave my grandfather a lot of respect, but people tended to avoid the 33-year-old Vietnam Vet — you know, the one with the strange look in his eyes, the one who didn’t talk much. But when we had a question about combat training, we went to the Vietnam Vet. And we listened to what he said. (As a sign of how people thought back then in the mid-80’s, I remember telling my mother, in all sincerity, that I didn’t expect to die a natural death. “Someone’s going to drop a nuclear weapon,” I told her. “Old age isn’t a factor in my planning.” The wall fell not too long after that, but I still worry from time to time.)
Five years later, in late 1990, the Gulf War happened. Most of the Vietnam vets in my unit had retired by this time, 20 years after their war, and we didn’t have any Panama vets in the unit. But we were well trained. We knew what we were doing. I watched the Gulf War happen on TV. I even called the unit to make sure I wasn’t supposed to be packing my bags, but they said they hadn’t heard any word on mobilization. To double-check, I called a guy I knew at the state headquarters in Camp Dodge, down by Des Moines. “Are you sure I’m not supposed to be going somewhere,” I asked him. “I don’t mean to pester you or anything, but my job in the Guard is to help mobilize my unit and process the paperwork through. Are you SURE I’m not supposed to be doing something?” I was told to go back to college and wait for the phone call. It never came, at least not for me. Several of my buddies that served in different units were called up, though. I still feel guilty when I think of them.
Shortly after the Gulf War, my unit started getting new equipment. We’d been training with Vietnam-era gear, but times were changing. Not long after that my eight years were up, and I decided to get out. I never got the rank they promised me, and being a clerk I was able to look up how many positions were available in the state for my job. Not many… (For those of you who understand this sort of thing, I’d been in for 8, and had been an E-4 for six years. I was working in an E-6 slot that was soon to be upgraded to E-7, but the state was already over their quota, so to speak, of E-5’s. So, had I stayed, I’d have been an E-4 working in an E-7 spot, with no chance of promotion for years and years.)
My grandfather’s generation was defined by World War II. My father’s generation was defined by the Vietnam War. My generation had the Gulf War… But we weren’t defined by it. Few of us fought in the war. I’m not saying it was an easy war for those that were there, but few of us had personal loss during the Gulf War. There were around 500,000 casualties in World War II. Vietnam had around 50,000. Most people lost a family member or a friend.
We lost 146 Americans in the Gulf War. My generation blew out a collective sigh of relief, and went on about our business. “You can dance if you want to, and leave your friends behind…”
Right now there’s some 17-year-old private standing in a National Guard armory somewhere looking at a 16-year-old photo of his unit’s involvement in the Gulf War, thinking “Man, that photo looks like ancient history.” And right now there’s a four-year-old kid who’s grown up his whole life seeing the Iraq war on TV, even though his parents try to shield him.
The wheel keeps turning. It makes me want to cry. I got lucky. I was hoping the next generation would too.