A Liberal Veteran Speaks Out On Veterans Day
Almost 40 years ago to the day, a skinny kid from Oklahoma rode a little green Army bus through the picturesque tower gate into Pinder Barracks in Zirndorf, Germany. That US Army private was me. It is hard to believe that it has been 40 years, but it has been. Richard Nixon had just been elected President of the United States, an election I was deemed too young, at 19, to have voted in. It would be four more years before I would have my first chance to vote in a presidential election.
Being from a very conservative state like Oklahoma, I was full of conservative ideas about life and my nation. It is often said that service in the military will make a man of you, and while I’m not sure that is true, I know that I was a very different person when I left Zirndorf a year and a half later to come back home to Oklahoma. While I see many of my fellow veterans embrace a very conservative political view, for me the experience of being in the Army was enlightening in a way that brought me to a firm belief in liberal values.
Being the product of segregated schools, I had very little contact with peers of color. They were considered in my circles to be “less thans” that didn’t belong at drug store lunch counters or in our classrooms. That kind of segregated thinking continued as I reached adult life and went into the workforce. There were a few black employees in low-level positions in the bank I got a job at in Tulsa, but I didn’t socialize with them, and only knew them from work. Even through basic and advanced training in the Army, my friends were other white guys, mainly a guy named Ron Hucke from Nebraska who I went all the way through my Army experience with.
But as Hucke and I arrived through the gate of Pinder Barracks to our duty station, the 2d Battalion, 16th Artillery, we came into a new world populated by a homogeneous group of fellow draftees from all over the nation. We were the only two from the Great Plains. We were separated from each other at that point by being placed in different batteries of the unit and taking rooms on different floors of the barracks. But we remained good friends.
As I remember it, Hucke’s battery, B Battery, was a little more what we called gung-ho in their approach to military duty. Mine, A Battery, on the other hand resembled the TV show M*A*S*H. I was suddenly exposed to a multi-racial, multi-ethnic world I had never known before. The unit was full of free thinkers, a radical concept in military circles, and rebels who didn’t subscribe to spit-and-polish conventions of lock-step military life. Instead of Elvis and Merle Haggard, we listened to The Beatles, The Doors, Iron Butterfly, Jimi Hendricks and Led Zeppelin, and we took a memorable trip to Munich to attend a Steppenwolf concert.
The main thing I learned from my experience was that there were “people of color” who were intelligent, thoughtful and fun to hang around with. I also was exposed to a culture much different from the one I had left behind in Oklahoma. Zirndorf was a suburb of Nurnberg, and that city had art museums and night life the likes of which I had never before seen. It was the 1960s, and the whole Western World was exploding with a cultural revolution that was evident even in a city of Germany that many Germans considered provincial. Then, of course, there was the magical mystique of living
in a place that displayed its historical architecture at every turn of the street. Albrect Durer, the painter who gave Western Civilization the portrait of Jesus Christ that we have embraced to be correct – of course historically, it couldn’t be – lived in Nurnberg. He also was the artist who sketched the famous “Praying Hands” that everyone has seen. It has a medieval wall around its old city, and a Holy Roman Empire castle crowning its center. It was a wonder to the eyes of a country boy from Oklahoma.
But it was the interpersonal relationships that I developed with guys from New York, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Tennessee, West Virginia, California, Alabama, Washington State, Virginia and other states, that shaped my thinking for the last 40 years. All of these guys, from all these places — representing blacks, Hispanics, Italian-Americans, Portuguese-Americans, southern whites, Mid-western whites, and western whites — gave me a national view that was too expansive to ignore as I moved forward with my life. They were my friends, my comrades, and we worked well together. Oh, yes, the Colonel – the “Old Man” as we called him – didn’t respect our lack of discipline when we were back in our home base, but when we went on maneuvers to Grafenwoer (GRAF-en-veer) to fire Honest John rockets, we were a well-oiled machine that always scored exemplary marks for our professionalism and accuracy on the target.
It made me realize that you don’t have to be narrow in your views in order to achieve your goals in life. It made me realize that we weren’t all that different beneath exterior appearances. It made me realize that a diverse group could pull together to get things done. It made me realize that the sum of all Americans was greater than one single group. It changed my life, and it changed my thinking. It changed me in a most profound way. It turned an Oklahoma conservative into an American Liberal. And I have never forgotten my comrades and the principles I learned at their sides. It was one of the greatest adventures of my life, and in the early days of my return to Oklahoma, I missed it greatly. I often had to talk myself down by realizing that, like me, my friends were no longer there. They, too, had returned to their homes and their other lives.
In time, as I moved on to other great adventures of my own, the feelings of missing Pinder Barracks and my friends faded into fond memories. In 1995, 25 years after I left Zirndorf, I returned on vacation. It was great to see it all again and eat at my favorite restaurant, having a Das Gute Zirndorfer Bier after so long. But it wasn’t the same as I remembered it. You see, the people — the most important ingredient in any experience — were gone. So it was an architectural and culinary tour of my past, enjoyable but not as satisfying as I might have hoped. But I would always like to return for another visit. When all is said and done, it is a charming town near a charming city. So if you ever get a chance to go there, I highly recommend it.
All of that nostalgia having been shared, it brings me to the thing I would really like to say today on Veterans Day, my day. I have been both insulted and troubled by the attacks waged on those of us who are liberal veterans by the Republican Party and their lock-step followers. I, and many others like me, served our country when called and came away with a different view of our society. We came away with a belief in the core values of a nation that allows free speech and the right to peacefully disagree with our government without being branded as unpatriotic or traitorous. I was particularly gratified to see the defeat of such ideologues last week and look forward to a great future for the nation I served and love, a future that values all of its citizens and their viewpoints. I look forward to feeling like I could join my local VFW without fear of being blackballed because I’m not a Republican. In my part of the country that wish may not be within grasp, but I will hold out the hope nonetheless.
If you know a veteran, give them a hug or at least thank them for their service to our country, today. No matter how they feel about the issues of the day, each one of them took the time out of their personal lives to serve their country and preserve our freedoms. They deserve our support and respect.
KEEP UP THE GOOD FIGHT!