Saturday was Veteran’s Day, and there were a lot of great articles about the history of our treatment of veterans all the way back to Revolutionary times, the formation of the VA, and current issues facing returning combat soldiers of our long conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan along with less-publicized theaters of conflict like Niger. There were pieces by vets, and about vets written by those most deeply touched by their loved one going off to war. There were pictures of widows and small children visiting graves at Arlington. I took time to read and reflect.
One of the points made is that with a professional military, the rest of us don’t think much about military service, and I think that’s true. I thought a lot about veteran’s issues yesterday, but as a general rule, I don’t.
I have some family history with military service. Five of my uncles and one aunt on my mother’s side were in the navy during World War II — all returned alive, which made my grandmother a Blue Star Mother. They were all enlisted, not officers — some stayed in and did their 20, and came out in their late 30’s with a skill set and a modest pension, ready to start a second career. My Uncle Gene was a cook in the navy, and after retiring he became a cook in the federal prison system — two careers, two pensions, and he was barely 60 when he retired. Aunt Dotty worked in a naval office that had something to do with the Instrument of Surrender signed by the Japanese in 1945; she had a marked up unofficial copy, which she gave to the nieces and nephews in later years. I think having six of the ten Halpin siblings in the navy was a proud thing for the family in that era. I find myself wondering where the Blue Star flag that my grandmother got to hang in her front window of the house on Kearny Avenue ever wound up.
None of the Halpin cousins in my generation made military service a career.
My late husband Jerry was in ROTC through graduate school, and became a First Lieutenant the minute he finished his PhD dissertation defense and set out from the University of Illinois to report to basic training in 1969. He was commissioned at the height of the VietNam war, but was assigned to Washington D.C. to the chemical corps, rather than being sent overseas. Promotions come rapidly during wartime; he was made a Captain about 20 minutes after taking up his duties in D.C.. Had he stayed beyond his two year commitment — zero chance of that — he’d have been made a Major immediately upon re-upping.
Matt registered with Selective Service upon turning 18, somewhat reluctantly as I recall. But I don’t think he ever considered the military as a career, and neither did Sara. I have one friend who went to the Naval Academy and served on active duty, retiring as a Commander. She lives in Rochester, and although she gets her health care through the VA system, she isn’t part of a retired navy community in the same way she might have been retiring in a place like San Diego, with an active naval presence. That’s about it for my connection.
I wonder what changes may happen, if any, when the John McCain generation of those serving in Congress dies off. Most of the younger people now in Congress have never served, although military bases and military industrial production and military procurement is big biz in red states. I think it will be different when there are no more John McCains with direct experience to speak out.