Monday, November 12, 2007

Veteran's Day 2007

On this Veteran's Day 2007 holiday I spent two and a half hours helping Colonel Bear cook sixty pounds of bacon for the annual Veterans breakfast at the American Legion Hall in Tallahassee. Because the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 2007 fell on a Sunday, by Act of Congress we celebrated Veteran's Day on Monday November 12th. Almost 300 Veterans and their families came together for a traditional military (and Southern) breakfast of bacon, scrambled eggs, sausage, and biscuits smothered in sausage gravy.

Colonel Michael Whitehead, in Kuwait in April 2003, preparing to enter Iraq.

We cooked the bacon outside on propane burners in iron, deep fat fryers bubbling with oil that Colonel Bear provided. Retired U.S. Army Colonel Calvin A. "Bear" Winter was the chief bacon cook and I was one of two assistants on duty. I had a variety of tasks to perform but the most important, and the reason that I volunteered myself for this duty, was to listen to Colonel Bear's stories about his military career.

Some of his most interesting stories came from 1952 and the six weeks he spent under almost continuous direct and indirect fire on a bone cold, freezing piece of ground called Heartbreak Ridge. By continuous fire I mean he never left that hole for six weeks for fear of being killed. The particular hole in which he resided was important because it provided him with an uninterrupted view of the movements of the Chinese Communists to his front. He used a radio to relay his observations to an array of artillery battteries to his rear. The timely and effective artillery fires that he called down on the Chinese made them all the more determined to get him out of his hole. Spending six uninterrupted weeks in a hole brought to my mind certain unavoidable issues of sanitation and I asked him about that, while we stood there cooking the bacon. He told me that he honestly didn't remember how he solved that particular problem (one of many, I'm sure, that he encountered, but he did). Like many veterans, Colonel Bear's uncertain memory helped him in this and many other ways.

When the breakfast was over, I delivered John and Betty O'Farrell to the American Legion float so that they could ride in the Veteran's Day Parade. Although they were both WW II veterans, neither had been in a Veteran's Day parade, and they both participated at my invitation. John fought in the Battle of the Bulge and Betty was an Army Nurse. I told them the Parade would be a moving experience for them, and when it was over they agreed. To watch the crowd on the side of the road rise and give us a standing ovation as we passed by brought tears to our eyes.

Before the parade I looked for and found a Viet Nam veteran that I had first met at last year's parade. His name is Jerald Collman and he was a graves registration officer in Viet Nam. In this and many other wars, the bodies of the fallen in the field were placed intact, or in pieces, into black bags and delivered to graves registration units, where they were prepared for the journey by air back to the United States. Jerald told me that the Veteran's Administration has documented that the two categories of veterans most likely to receive 100% disability for Post Traumatic Stress were members of front line combat units and members of graves registration units. Jerald was granted just such a disability by the VA.

Jerald admitted to me last year that he had suffered greatly from his experience in Viet Nam. He said that he had committed to memory over one thousand names of the dead that he and his unit had cared for in the year that he spent there. Many times at night he had recited the names as he tried to fall asleep. Last year, and this year, he carried a large, thick book that listed the over 55,000 names of the fallen in that war.

Since we had spoken last year, Jerald told me that he had returned to Viet Nam and had found the slab of concrete where his unit had received and processed the dead. The Vietnamese knew and understood the significance of this piece of ground and had refused to allow any other building or structure to be built on this spot. He showed me pictures of a memorial plague that was erected on this piece of hallowed ground as a result of his visit. I asked him if he was doing any better and he said that he was, that his visit to Viet Nam had been instrumental for him in exorcising some of the demons that he had carried for so many years.

As a commissioned Army officer for thirty years I have a very clear and unequivocal understanding of the concept of duty. Doing my duty for my family, for my job and for my country are an important part of my life and how I see myself as a person. My participation in the American Legion and the small part that I play in the Veteran's Day activities in my small town are my duty. I do it for Colonel Bear, for John, for Betty, for Jerald, for myself and for all the other Veteran's out there.

1 comment:

  1. Remembrance Day in Britain is almost universally marked by a moment of silence at 11am on the 11th and the wearing of little plastic red poppies on your lapel in the weeks preceding. The Queen gets to lay flowers at the Cenotaph on Whitehall as well. She's very useful at occasions such as these. Happy Veterans' Day!