On a perfect Memorial Day morning, I bicycled out of Boston to a Veterans Affairs medical center in Jamaica Plain, to see if there might be a commemorative service for patients. It's no longer an inpatient facility, and was closed for the holiday. But as I rounded a corner not far from the hospital, I heard The Marines' Hymn ("From the Halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli...") and a medley of other armed forces songs booming off the walls of a highway overpass. At American Legion Post 76, small flags were stuck in the lawn, and spectators snapped pictures as a color guard formed up in the parking lot. A half dozen former soldiers, young and no longer young, stood at parade rest holding flags and old bolt-action carbines and exchanging a few wisecracks while the sound system was adjusted. There were short speeches, a prayer and a song with the refrain "God Bless the U.S.A," and several of the spectators sang along. The parade was short because the post is close to the highway and an intersection, and the color guard marched out of the driveway, around the building and back to the starting point.
I was struck by the span of their ages and the conflicts in which they served. The post's last World War I soldier died a couple years ago, someone said. The World War II veterans moved with deliberation, and a couple of the Vietnam vets looked to be getting creaky knees, although Vietnam seems not that long ago.
One Navy man there was Eddie MacDonald, in his late eighties. MacDonald was an underwater demolition specialist and among the first to hit the shores of France clearing mines in advance of the D-Day landing. Another Navy man, in uniform and with a lot of stripes on one sleeve, was gently said to have "seen a lot of war service"; everyone shook his hand or patted him on the back.
Joe Ratta, aged 81, an Army tank driver in World War II, was there and so was his younger brother, Frank, an infantryman in Korea. Next to Paul DeCoste, a six-foot-plus Marine who served in Vietnam, were two young men – both named Mike – from our current Iraq and Afghanistan era. When the speeches were over and the service plaques had been handed out, the good-humored crowd ambled past the flags and headed for the bar.
"This goes on in every little town across the country on Memorial Day and Veterans Day," Joe Ratta told me later. He added that every civilian cemetery in the country is covered by a veterans' organization such as the Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars. "Ever notice the small flags in the cemetery on Memorial Day?" Joe asked. "We put them there every year." This year the Jamaica Plain post placed 1,500 flags on veterans' graves in Forest Hills cemetery alone.
Memorial Day had me thinking about soldiers I've met around the world. Not all of them get flags.
For some years I've kept a photo on a wall of a group of UNITA (União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola) soldiers sitting under a tree at a rebel bush camp in central Angola. I keep it not because it's a particularly good photo but as a reminder of soldiers, child soldiers in particular, of what they are asked to do and, in many cases, made to do. The soldier in the foreground is looking straight into the camera, unsmiling. He wears a faded U.S. Army field jacket (the U.S. supported Jonas Savimbi's UNITA during the Cold War), holds a battered AK-47 rifle between his knees, and looks to be about 15. He was ill with malaria, and sweating. It was supposed to be a pep talk for the troops, but pep was long gone from these boys and men. When it broke up, I walked a ways with one of his friends, who had a leg wound and was using his rifle as a cane, the muzzle jammed into the dirt.
As Mozambique's long civil war drew to a close, I heard about a camp for demobilized government soldiers north of Maputo, the capital, and drove up to have a look. I thought I'd blundered into the wrong place. A group of men, some in tatters of uniform, most barefoot, sat around a cold cooking fire. There was nothing else. No food, no water, no medical care, and they were all as thin as rails. When I asked what the government provided, one waved his hand to take in the camp. I bought them a 50 kg sack of rice and left, embarrassed and appalled.
Neglect of veterans, or a strange civilian uneasiness about them, is nothing new. For soldiers, a sense of dismay or apartness (except when they're with fellow veterans) probably goes back as far as warfare itself. Remember Kipling's "Tommy"?
"O it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' 'Tommy, go away';
But it's 'Thank you, Mister Atkins', when the band begins to play."
Ron Russell, a Marine from Jamaica Plain who was deployed to Vietnam right after the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964 told me he was shocked when officers told returning Marines not to wear uniform in public when they disembarked at San Francisco in 1966. The shock turned bitter when a war protester on an adjacent bar stool said smugly, "You should thank me. I'm one of the people who brought you home." The protestor is said to have sorely regretted his remark.
We've had other episodes of shoddy treatment, such as the Walter Reed Army Medical Center scandal. But Americans seem to have mostly learned the difference between opposing a war on political grounds and insulting or shunning soldiers who fought it. "You will get respect," Joe Ratta said. "People come up to you and shake your hand. Makes you feel good."
Semper Fi, as the Marines say.
Photo by Philip C. Winslow.