Alone, in full battle gear and heady with adrenalin, I inched my way through barbed wire across the rocky terrain and up the hill, machine-gun tracer fire overhead, explosions on either side of me.
Reaching the top, I crouched and charged, screaming, “Kill! Kill! Kill!” as I butted and bayoneted the enemy with my M1.
Of course, he was made only of straw. Still, war was hell.
Firing stopped. I heard laughter from the stands. I turned to see most of my battalion laughing, pointing at the battlefield now covered with puffs of white cotton. It was everywhere. Snow in May. And it had all come from me.
It was army basic training at Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri, 1959. I was 23. The evening before, following whispered advice from my platoon sergeant, I’d spent a fair portion of my $72 monthly pay on dozens of Kotex pads.
The dreaded Live-Ammo Infiltration Course training was the next day and, between my slight build, my relative dotage, and the temporary stripes on my arm, I was sure to be picked as the “demonstrator” who would “do” the course first, showing those who would follow that it was endurable.
Early the next morning, I taped Kotex to my elbows, knees, everywhere. The sharp, rocky terrain would not bloody me.
Lt. Kaiser, Circa 1961
And so it was that I humbled and embarrassed myself in front of everyone from battalion commander on down. Yet, no one ever made mention of it. It was understood that we were all doing the best we could under the circumstances.
There are things I’ll never forget about the army. The ping of the eight-round clip as it automatically ejected from an M1’s chamber. (Remember? We could take that rifle completely apart and put it back together again, blindfolded.) My astonishment and sheer joy to be alive after a howitzer round exploded way too close to my forward-observation point. My deep-felt dread when rumors of war had our unit going to Lebanon.
“Smoke ’em if you’ve got ’em.”
Most American men over age 55 have served in the armed forces, one way or another. I learned recently from an American Legion recruitment letter that my service, as it was during one of that century’s few peaceful lulls, is deemed too trivial to be eligible for that august organization.
Whatever, from our days in uniform, we all know the taste of fear, the smell of cordite, the sting of tear gas in our eyes. We know something of sacrifice, too. And we wholeheartedly believe in its need. Perhaps that is why, when our national anthem is played, you see us older dudes with our hands over our hearts and, often, tears in our eyes.
Little surprise then, to learn that when it comes to supporting our troops fighting in Iraq, we geezers are there for them, 100 percent. Even those of us, like me, who believe this war is unjust, unwarranted, and unwise.
Yet because of this stand, I’ve been accused of troop bashing, even sedition. Many in Washington, with their “either with us or against us” rhetoric, seem unable to understand what all of us trained and, often, fought for; Freedom to voice deep-felt beliefs without fear.
Perhaps if more of them had served – instead of being “busy with more important matters” as Dick Cheney claims – there would be greater tolerance.
We protesters may be wrong. Know, however, that our dissent does not come lightly but from our hearts and our love of country.
By the time you read this, our brave troops may well have won the war. I pray that in doing so, we have not lost the peace.
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