Sunday, November 30, 2008
My Last Few Days in Uniform
When I was a young soldier in Officer Candidate School back in 1969, the oldest man in our class was a guy named Callahan. The “old” man was a thirty-two-year-old sergeant first class, but he was also a combat veteran with multiple awards for valor, several Purple Hearts and a variety of other awards.
Naturally, since he was the oldest officer candidate in the class, all of us youngsters gave Callahan a mighty hard time. He was a tough guy and he would stare us down and tell us, “Don’t worry, kids; you’ll be where I am some day.”
Well, I not only reached his age, but I have almost doubled it. Since I will turn sixty in February, my somewhat disjointed, off-and-on Army “career” is finally coming to an end. There is a bittersweet quality about it, but I know it’s almost time to take the uniform off for the last time.
I am blessed to have met and/or served with veterans who fought in America’s wars from World War II to Iraq and Afghanistan. I have lost count of the number of uniform changes over the years, but I have a few examples of each one. The duffle bags in my attic are filled with old “fatigues” from basic training, jungle fatigues from Vietnam and all the other versions up to the Army Combat Uniform (ACU) of today. In over thirty years of total service, I have shared both good and bad times with the men and women of the active Army, the Army Reserve or the Florida Army National Guard.
It’s only natural that I always carry the memories of American soldiers I knew who died in combat. I’ve touched names on the Vietnam wall in Washington, D.C. of kids who died as teenagers or older soldiers who left wives and children waiting at home. I’ve known young men and women who entered the deserts of Iraq with determination and courage whose futures were ended before they began. I will forever feel the empty spaces inside my soul for the shortened lives of my comrades, for the parents who never saw their “babies” alive again and for the children who never knew the heroic souls that were their moms or dads.
There are many soldiers who have seen more wars than me or who have experienced worse episodes of combat. Retired Lieutenant General Hal Moore (We Were Soldiers Once and Young) and his First Cav troopers at LZ X-ray come to mind as an example of warriors who ventured far deeper into the pit than I.
Still, I have managed to evade Death in two separate wars. The bullets, mortars, rockets and even the crash landing of an airplane failed to take me out. I’m extraordinarily fortunate to have survived my two tours without so much as a scratch. Unlike others, I don’t carry the external scars of war, but I guess all of us have a few of the internal scars. Regardless, we remain members of America’s warrior class and we consider our service a source of pride that we will carry with us to our graves.
Next week is my last week in uniform. On December 3 (the fortieth anniversary of my enlistment in the Army in 1968), I have one last medical exam. The next day I will out-process and begin my terminal leave which will last until January 31, 2009. I will return to police work on February 1 and my Army retirement is effective a month later when I - it’s still hard to say – turn SIXTY.
A handful of Vietnam veterans continue to serve in the military and some of them are at war in Iraq and Afghanistan. I wish them well, but I also wish I could be with them. I’m the last Vietnam veteran in my Army Reserve unit and I don’t mind saying that there’s a bit of pride in being the last old guy in my battalion. (The above picture is what the young lieutenant looked like just before he left for the ‘Nam.)
As my ancestors did before me, I leave the military to a younger, capable force of dedicated men and women. Our nation is in good hands and one day these youngsters will also hand off the defense of America to their own children and grandchildren. “Old soldiers never die,” said General Douglas MacArthur, “they just fade away.”
The “American Ranger” blog will continue, although it will probably become more of an “old retired soldier’s” blog. I will still write about the heroic men and women of our military services and I will vigorously defend our liberties with the pen (or the computer keyboard). However, the day will never come when I am unwilling to pick up the sword once again in the defense of my beloved America.
Thanks to all of you who have supported me in my military service over several decades. I honor each of you as well as the families of our warriors. I will continue to support all that you do for our veterans in whatever way I can.
May God bless America’s warriors, their families and all those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom.
“This is Cobra One, out…”
Charles M. Grist