Uncommon Valor and a Lifetime of Service
He was No Saint, But We Knew Him for His Bravery
A grumpy Draftee Who Had Not Proven His Worth
A TRIBUTE TO SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN in two parts
I was looking at Vietnam in my rear-view mirror. I had done my duty as painful as it was at the time. I had served my country. My bride and I had served at Fort McClellan Alabama from 1971 to 1973.
In military speak, it was 1 year, 8 months and 24 days (which included basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri). I must recount one short story from that experience.
I had enjoyed camping, on occasion, as a young man.
Now, when the order of the day was called it was time to embark on bivouac.
I was not unduly stressed. I had matured in the last few weeks and at 21 years old; I was mature. I was not an eighteen or nineteen-year-old like most of the other guys. Hmmm
We loaded everything onto our backs except the food that we would need for who knows how long.
The recruits were never told anything in boot camp.
I imagined it was so that these green-behind-the-ears inductees would not dream up some preconceived incorrect expectations. My thought was that the Army just thought we were too dumb.
The march began out to the bivouac area somewhere on the enormous Fort Leonard Wood MS base.
It was the home of the Combat Engineers (the guys with the big trucks and things that went KABOOM!).
It was hot! It was muggy! This was Missouri. Not the Minnesota I had left such a short time ago.
In March or April, whatever month it was, Northern Minnesota had a history of being still blanketed with snow. If it was April, there wouldn’t be too much left from the blizzards that paid a regular visit in March. There would still be snow banks left by the snowplows and they would still be too high to step over.
The significant part of this little tale is not that we sweated all day, ate Army rations (K rations, not the fancy MRE’s of today. Those cookies and tiny sausage weiners stuck to the ribs pretty well.)
The misery began as we put up the tent for the night.
The Army in its wisdom gave every man one-half of a tent. They were called shelter halves. A good name for a really heavy cotton tarp. I don’t think any camping gear is made that heavy anymore. But this was forty-some years ago! Well, it got dark (not completely dark) but not too much good light was left as we started to pitch our tents. I was teamed up (we didn’t call it ‘teams’ back then) with another young man from the same town. I didn’t know him before getting on the plane to my new future. It as an adventurous trip to basic (a tale for another day). He was shorter than I, wore glasses and he got one heck of a urinary tract infection in basic! Understand that sidling up to the urinal trough (not private, white porcelain ones) and urinating red was not a badge of honor in basic!
We were getting our packs off (damn they were heavy - but not as heavy as they were going to be).
Just then began a Missouri deluge.
In Northern Minnesota terms, we didn’t know about deluges but it rained buckets back in Missouri.
We were miserable. Why? Because in the dark and in the wet and in a hurry we mixed up the front and back of the shelter halves.
We had hooked my front end to his back end of the shelter halves. Start over, bozos. Well into one of the buckets that had come down we managed to toss our sleeping bags.
US Army issue mummy bags (down, with an enclosure that would cover your head so that only your nose peeked out. A soldier looked like a mummy.)
We struggled to rearrange the pup tent and gushed water when we took our boots off.
Wet boots, wet pants, wet field jackets, and a down sleeping bag. (Did I mention that they made the sleeping bags of goose down?) When we pulled them out of that proverbial bucket that had come down, they weighed not 20 pounds, not 40 pounds but who knows? They were heavy.
And wet down? Clammy, wet, cold sleeping bags. We didn’t even try to get into them. Somehow, we just quit wrestling and swearing and fell asleep. All I remember was MISERY!
The morning came.
We had hot meals — delivered. The mess hall cooked up something and shipped it out to us. (I’m glad they knew where we were!)
That meal felt so good! We dunked our trays into each of the three barrels of hot water, soap then rinse, then HOT rinse.
We grabbed our last slurp of coffee and had a smoke. In those days smoking was a necessity. It was a good thing. At least if you had one minute to call your own.
After the Drill Instructor called ‘Light ’em up if you got ’em and then hollered ‘put ’em out’, was about a minute.
(I know they loved doing that! Light ’em up put ’em out. If smokes weren’t so cheap you had to wonder if it was worth it.)
The worst part came next. ‘Police your butts.’ That was not an anatomical connection.
No, a company of stupid inductees had not yet learned the value of non-filtered smokes. We had to strip the tobacco from the butts and put the butts our pants pocket until we remembered them while the pants were spinning in the washing machine.
(If we had watched the DI’s we would have seen that Palls Malls were a very smart idea. Rip the paper open and let the unburned tobacco and the paper just float away in the breeze.)
Washing machine? Oh yeah, I was enjoying that smoke so much I forgot where I had left off.
Yes indeed. This was the modern Army. Half of the one level concrete block building was showers, the other half latrines. The middle half was washers and dryers.
Only a few though, can’t spoil the troops you know. Make ’em sit for hours in front of the machine they were using so no one would grab the clothes and then put theirs in. Yes, sir. A great way to spend an afternoon off.
Another point in passing. Do you see that neat picture above with the scrubbed troops all lined up on the stands?
Not in my day!
Photo day was wearing your muddy boots and fatigue pants, putting on your Class A uniform jacket and cap and proceed into the latrine to get your mug shot.
Classy!? I’ll say.
Back to the Woods
The fun begins!
They called the formation.
Everybody groaned under the weight of the now soaking wet packs (at least those of us that had been too slow to get out of the rain).
Everyone shuffled into line. Hmm.
The ground was different this morning. Not firm but squishy. The march began.
But WORSE! Every step was excruciating!
The mud stuck to my boots until it was 6″ thick. I then became intimately acquainted with something I seldom ran into.
Not MUD! CLAY! (The clay I was familiar with lined the banks of the Mississippi River that ran thru town. We only went near the stuff when we had the green mud boots on.)
This was RED MISSOURI CLAY! (Are you getting the flavor of why we called it ‘Little Misery?’)
The clay weighed each boot down by ten pounds. The march, or slog it was rightly called, all the way back to the barracks. Our company was most fortunate, we lived in Quonset huts.
The rest of the battalion had the fancy brick buildings. (That too is another tale for another day.)
After hours and hours of slogging under the hot Missouri sun, in the horrible Missouri humidity, we finally arrived. Now nap time.
Naptime? Are you nuts? Clean up time!
The DI’s (Drill Instructors, this wasn’t the Marines! Not all were sergeants. Some, by force of their nature, got busted down a rank a time or two on occasion.
They made sure no one got to eat or sleep until we scrapped our boots off; the mud hosed off the rest and then crawl into the bunk. I was so exhausted I don’t remember that night.
Was that the night I fell asleep on fire watch?
Don’t ever, I mean EVER do that.
I remember walking up to the thought of spending the day getting those boots ready for inspection.
Sitting in a field on the few hours we got off a week, scrapping and digging, and wiping and digging. Then came the polish. Hours of rubbing and rubbing and rubbing to get at least a semblance of shine back on them.
Well, I am out of time. I will have to get to the most important part of the tale, The Tribute, next post.
Uncommon Valor and a Lifetime of Service to His Country
As I left my tale of the Army in my rearview mirror of life, one day I saw a news program. I watched in awe? Horror? Shock?
I can’t think of the word but probably all of them. On the news soon after March 14, 1973, I saw American soldiers deplaning. The news anchor explained these men had flown from Germany. North Vietnam had released them from Prisoner of War Camps in North Vietnam.
You may remember it was months prior when I lived through basic training at Fort Leonard Wood Missouri. Our night on bivouac still weighed on my mind. If I took our two days on the miserable adventure and multiplied it by five years, the result is 1,825 more nights that Captain McCain spent in captivity with torture always as his companion.
Later, much later, a more detailed account of the horrors of the Hanoi Hilton and other camps emerged. It wasn’t until much, much later a complete (as will ever be told) was let out of the bag. Now, single file down the ramp, a salute to the flag they had served for such a long time in captivity (for John McCain is was more than five years!). I suffered through eight weeks of basic training. These guys numbered their suffering in YEARS!
On Monday, October 16, 2017, Senator John Sydney McCain of the great state of Arizona was awarded the Liberty Medal by the National Constitution Center and presented to Senator McCain by a dear friend and former Vice President of the United States, Mr. Joseph Biden. The medal was awarded for his lifetime of sacrifice and service to the Nation.
He began his remarks, after a short period of ribbing with Joe Biden (they had served in the United States Senate together), by recalling another Liberty Medal Award ceremony in 1991. He was attending the ceremony at the War Memorial at the USS Arizona in Hawaii. The recipient of this medal was former President George H. W. Bush. President Bush’s remarks were emotional and heartfelt as he was a WWII pilot in the Pacific. He had to bail from his aircraft over the Pacific Ocean. Mr. McCain related that Mr. Bush, who with a choked-up voice concluded his remarks “May God bless them. May God Bless America, the most wondrous land on earth.”
Mr. McCain then recalled the story, a version of which I had heard at a young age. A story which shaped my life and my times indeed as his-story shaped these United States of America.
“We are blessed, and we are a blessing to humanity in turn. The international order we helped build from the ashes of world war, and we defend to this day, has liberated more people from tyranny and poverty than ever before in history. This wondrous land has shared its treasures and ideals and shed the blood of its finest patriots to help make a new, better world. And as we do so, we made our own civilization, more just, freer, more accomplished and prosperous than the America which existed when I watched my father go off to war on December 7th, 1941.”
Then Mr. McCain began the most telling part of his remarks. “To fear the world we organized and led for three quarters of a century, to abandon the ideals we advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership and our duty to remain ‘the last hope of the earth’ for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems are as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history. We live in a land made of ideals at home and their champion abroad. We have done great good in the world. Leadership has its costs, but we have become incomparably powerful and wealthy as we did. We have a moral obligation to continue in our just cause, and we would bring more shame on ourselves if we don’t. We will not thrive in a world where our leadership and ideals are absent. We wouldn’t deserve to.”
(Now, dear reader, you may not know the spirit in which these words were given, nor the actions and words that led Mr. McCain to deliver them.
I will not take away one iota of the adulation due to Mr. McCain. I would beg your patience with one more thought regarding Mr. McCain. He is not just a former POW or a six-term Senator from Arizona. He is a Statesman of this Country. The order “Statesman” is not granted lightly or frequently. Indeed, it won’t even be given again in Mr. McCain’s lifetime.
There is no greater honor Mr.McCain lived for than the two great moments I was privileged to witness The first was when, as the last Republican Senator voting, he cast the vote to snatch the victory from the Republican Party’s wicked attempt to disembowel the Affordable Care Act. The next were the words that will ring around the globe to face all the wicked, evil and immoral attempts to change America from a leader to an America that falls to its lowest common denominator.
This is the time to honor a great Statesman. We were honored, learning from and hopefully passing on to our children, the sacrifice, and service — the life of Mr. John Sydney McCain. Undoubtedly, the brain cancer robbing him of years that should be devoted to peace and leadership, of shepherding the men and women that will follow him, will now be lost. There will be more opportunities ahead to witness his love and devotion not only to this great country but the special place in which he held his constituents, the people of Arizona. Join with me as we witness the great resolve and inspiration that is shown by a true ‘Statesman’, Senator John Sydney McCain.
One of my two all-time favorite images. Monument Valley Park in Arizona.
This image of one of my favorite earthbound structures, Cathedral Rock.
All images I use are my own and labeled, or published under Creative Commons Zero License, which means you can copy, modify, distribute and use the photos for free, including commercial purposes, without asking permission from or providing attribution to the photographer.
Thank you for your service, Senator John McCain!
For your service in the United States Military, in the United States Senate and in private life. You are a role model to this generation and the upcoming ones.
I am sorry about your illness. Sorry for those of us that remain. Hopefully, we will have strength and intelligence to fight this most pernicious war that very many don’t even know, yet, that is being waged.
Shalom! (God is fighting for Your Peace)