Friday, April 1, 2005

So different

...and it got me to thinking about my own first military homecoming. A very different one. I was an enlisted sailor in the U.S. Navy, serving on the USS Long Beach, a nuclear-powered guided missile cruiser. I'd gone out to sea on a cruise, and had been gone for many months. When I returned to our home port of Long Beach, California, and left the ship and base for the first time, I was in uniform because all my civilian clothes were in storage. At that time (this was the early '70s; the Vietnam War was still going on) sailors were not allowed to take their civilian clothes on the ship.

I had a long walk from the main gate to the "locker club" where my stuff was stored. At first, the walk was very pleasant — my first view in many months of good old America. But that pleasantness was soon destroyed. First by a pretty girl walking toward me, her face all twisted with emotion as she cursed me on her way by. "Baby killer" she called me. I was shocked, very shocked, though of course I had seen on TV and read plenty about anti-war protests. Then other things happened — people yelling hateful things from passing cars, signs in shop windows saying "Sailors and Dogs Not Welcome", a schoolbus full of high school kids telling me how despicable I was. But the worst was yet to come.

I got my clothes from the locker club (they were friendly in there, at least), and walked in civilian clothes toward the long-term car storage place where I had stashed my 1965 Ford Country Squire station wagon. I was still recognizable as a sailor because of my haircut, and I still got some trash from passers-by — though by this time I was getting pretty angry about it, and was no longer quite so shocked. By the time I arrived at the place that was storing my car, all I wanted to do was escape, as quickly as possible. I walked into the storage place's office, and presented the clerk — a long-haired, scroungy looking young man — with the paperwork for my car. He threw it back at me and said that I could not have my car, as he was not about to do anything to help "an enemy of all mankind" like me, and he told me in a quite vulgar and direct way what I could do with my paperwork. I've never forgotten that phrase: an enemy of all mankind. What a label to put on a returning sailor. Not exactly an uplifting moment.

At that time I was a very naive young man, quite literally straight off the farm, and I had no idea what I could do. I couldn't even imagine what recourse I might have in the face of this young man's simple refusal to serve me. I just stood there, gaping, for who knows how long...probably just a few seconds. And then a grizzled, grimy, greasy man of approximately World War II vintage came into the office; the owner, I found out later. He grabbed my paperwork, got my car, and I was on my way. After a few hours driving through the beautiful California countryside, down to Lake Elsinore where I camped over the weekend, I got my psychic balance back. But as you can probably imagine, the whole experience remains pretty fresh in my memory...

As I watch our soldiers being greeted in a much different way on their homecomings from Afghanistan and Iraq, I have a very strong emotional reaction. I find myself choking back tears at the simplest little such story. The ad from the Superbowl, with the returning soldiers being cheered by the passengers in the airline terminal had me teary-eyed — and unreasonably happy and proud — for days. And the simple story from TigerHawk, in its own way, did the same. Silly perhaps, but for this Vietnam-era veteran seeing the wonderful welcome these troops are getting is somehow putting to bed the last of the bad memories and feelings I've had ever since my Navy days.

Thanks, TigerHawk, for welcoming the troops as you did. Read TigerHawk's whole story here, but here's the good part:

Traffic cops and a slew of passersby lined the sidewalk. A Coast Guard helicopter buzzed in from Corpus Christi Bay then banked.

We joined the crowd on the corner of Water Street and Peoples. We may have waited three minutes, at the most. Here came the convoy — a police escort followed by two buses filled with young Marines. We cheered, saluted and clapped as the company rolled by. (I feel certain the company belongs to the 1/23rd Marines. The 1/23rd is a Marine reserve battalion just back from Iraq — and I have friends in Central Texas whose sons serve in that unit. If I’ve got the Corpus Christi unit misidentified, post a comment or drop me an email and I’ll correct it.)

Most of us old codgers wore short-sleeves and slacks, so it’s a fair bet the Marine reservists didn’t know their former Corps commander and his senior staff were cheering with the home crowd. (Probable wisecrack if someone informed a lance corporal: “Hey, sarge—are those the guys responsible for all the dumb orders you didn’t like?”)

Actually, the Marines were smiling and waving—the one memorable face I saw framed in the bus window as it shot past was that of a delighted but obviously tired young man.

Jet lag or Iraq lag? Or lag from a week at the 29 Palms Marine base? Doesn’t really matter now – welcome home.

No comments:

Post a Comment