A veteran's question of honor

Monday, November 15, 1999

By Lloyd K. Marbet

My 12-year-old son plays trombone. I encouraged him to do so, as I, too, played trombone when I was his age. Even though I gave it up during my years in high school, I still have a memory of the basics and I wanted him to at least have the opportunity to experience the love of music. I even purchased an extra trombone so that we could play together and made a point of attending all of his musical recitals.

We get up early in the morning to go to school. I fix him breakfast and we walk across the Barton Bridge, where he catches the school bus on Eden Road. It is a ritual, just like always having to ask him if there is anything going on at school that I need to know about. For some reason I have this problem getting any lead time from him on the news, so it was not surprising when he announced early in the morning that he had two band concerts later in the day, one for the seventh grade classes and one for the eighth.

I hadn't asked him why his school was having the concerts but decided to attend the second one, as I could bring him home from school when it was over. Due to a scheduling conflict, his mom was only able to attend the first concert. So here I was, walking into the school gymnasium on my own.

The first thing that struck me was the size of the gym and what appeared to be three different bands across the long length of a well-polished floor, plus a chorus in the middle. Searching for Tai, I found him in the trombone section of the band closest to the entrance and I went over to inquire about the other bands. To my surprise, he informed me they were all from the same school and while talking with him further, I noticed an older man in military uniform approaching me. We struck up a conversation, and I learned this whole event was to honor military veterans.

Lt. Col. Everett was very congenial. He wanted to know if I was a veteran. I told him I had served in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War, and he launched into a long discourse on how he, too, had originally served in the Navy, but his desire to fly had led him to join the Army. He told me how few people realized that the Army actually had more ships than the Navy and more airplanes than the Air Force.

I was rather amazed about this and before I knew it, he told me that he was going to invite me up to speak briefly about my service activity. I immediately declined. He assured me that all I had to do was tell the children what branch of the military I served in.

I immediately started inching towards the bleachers, while taking pictures of my son, in hopes that Lt. Col. Everett would forget about me and I could lose myself in the crowd of students waiting for the concert to begin. Before I could get there, the ceremony started and the Color Guard marched through the door, blocking my way.

I served in the U. S. Navy for 10 months, between 1966 and 1967. I went in a Seaman Apprentice and I came out a Seaman Apprentice. I was assigned as an assault boat coxswain to the U.S.S. Seminole, a cargo ship that was used to haul supplies in the Vietnam War.

The reason why I was still a Seaman Apprentice when I was discharged is that I had gone AWOL to be with someone I loved, before my ship was to leave for Vietnam. Even though I voluntarily came back in time to catch my ship, I was later court-marshaled. As a part of my punishment I lost the rank of seaman.

Later, after experiencing life on board this ship, its sinking morale and the reality of Vietnam, I asked to be discharged, as I no longer could serve my country in this way.

To my surprise I was honorably discharged, and I am sure that if I had had time to tell Lt. Col. Everett my story, he would not have been so quick to invite me to participate in the ceremony.

When they called him to come to the microphone, he took my arm and led me to the center of the room along with the other veterans who also happened to be there. My mind raced. How absurd this was.

I knew that I could just simply say I was in the Navy ,but then the colonel began to tell his story and I suddenly remembered a movie I saw after my discharge. It was called "Hearts and Minds," a vivid documentary of how the United States got involved in the Vietnam War.

I remembered the scenes from the school ceremonies, the football games and the recognition given to the flag. I remember the faces of the young men who had pledged allegiance, only to find the utter tragedy of their lives chewed up and spit out by the horror of a war that our country had no business being in. I remembered how I thought that everyone should see this movie.

I also remembered the servicemen that I had known both during and after the war. I remember the fear that I had seen on the faces of the Vietnamese people. I remembered how shocked I was that I could not associate what I was experiencing with the images of what I had been taught to believe. We were supposed to be the saviors of these people. Yet, they were not so much afraid of the Viet Cong as they were afraid of me. My eyes burnt a hole in the gymnasium floor, and I shrank deep within myself.

The lieutenant colonel went to each of the vets, giving each a short time on the microphone.

Then he came to me.

"I served in the United States Navy, and when I got out I worked in opposition to the Vietnam War," I simply said.

I was surprised to hear the applause as the lieutenant colonel averted his eyes while taking back the microphone. He launched into a long story about a pilot he knew who had to eject himself from his plane.

I searched the faces of the children wondering if they understood what had just gone down.

There are no ceremonies for us. We are not a part of the American military myth, though we once were the promise of her children. We inherited a mantle we could not carry, and because we were unable to worship the emperor who had no clothes, we became the shame of the empire * even when we were later proved right.

We stopped a war, but we have never stopped the progression of those who use its patriotism to prepare our children for battle, over and over. Even the lieutenant colonel, in the best of his intentions, equated this sacrifice for freedom in terms of being able to go to the store and buy what we want. It is as if liberty is merely the right to consume.

Where is the honor given for the embarrassing freedoms? The freedom to stand up against your government when it is wrong. The freedom to worship your own religion or have none at all. The freedom to preserve the very fabric of life which respects no borders and worships no flags. The freedom to love and to grow in a climate of tolerance based on preserving the rights of others and not just our own reflection of what we think those rights should be for others.

This is not an easy world to live in. As the wars rage in and around us, we celebrate Veterans Day in honor of those who gave their lives for their country. From where I stand, there are many veterans who never wore a uniform, but their stand for justice was and is just as valiant as those who stood in the trenches.

For this Veterans Day, I chose to honor a man I saw long ago in a Veterans Hospital in Tampa Bay, Fla. I was a teen-ager, and a school friend and I had ridden my red Vespa scooter to the Bay Pines Veterans Hospital to buy cigarettes. Afterward, we wandered the hospital wards looking at the veterans disabled by so many battles in so many wars. It was there that I first saw his eyes in the shadows of a hospital room. He looked deep into mine and I stood transfixed as I slowly began to realize that the sheet covering his bed was flat where his legs and arms were supposed to be. I will never forget the anguished look in his eyes.

What he imparted to me is what I am now able to see. No words were exchanged about freedom, and there was no ceremony great enough to reward him for the sacrifice he had become.

Lloyd Marbet, who lives in Boring, is a long-time Oregon political activist.