Return to story
TO MODIFY slightly what Ernest Hemingway wrote, veterans are different from the rest of us--they have more memories. Or at least different memories.
In a society that extols freedom, they remember being told, usually in an objectionable tone, exactly what to do--Fall out! Give me 20! Swab that deck! Take that hill!--for months and years on end.
In a nation that tugs its forelock to the individual, they recall the satisfying and sometimes dearly picked fruits of collective action, whether field-daying a barracks to white-glove perfection or clearing a smoking atoll of a deadly and determined enemy.
In a country that craves comfort and convenience, they recollect walking four-hour night guards in places with climates like Frigidaires and the singular inconvenience of taking point in a triple-canopy jungle well-appointed with leeches, land mines, and professional lifetakers.
Among a general population that expects security, they occasionally reminisce of dangers potential and manifest from a time in their lives when wearing standard-issue apparel brought the distinct possibility of being shot, dismembered, immolated, gassed, or atomized--all for the privilege of being buried in that same apparel assuming enough could be found to bury.
Veterans' memories are often good, flavored by the unique camaraderie that arises among strangers united in a state of low-grade misery made tolerable by loyal friendship and wry humor. Romance or its rough equivalent--measured by the hour, the six-day R&R, or a passel of grandkids courtesy of a once-young war bride--may also make its claim on wistful reflection. And then there are memories of the other sort that swim into the consciousness unbidden like enemy frogmen, leaving their wet tracks in night sweats and tears on old men's cheeks.
Veterans' memories yield a distillate of pride, the precious knowledge that from the Kasserine to Kandahar they served a high cause. Their war may have been well-conceived or ill-, popular or jeered, but American vets stood to bleed for those oppressed. This can be proved beyond a reasonable doubt: Storm trooper, Viet Cong, and Taliban fighter are among the expert witnesses.
And whether their service earned combat ribbons oceans away or began and ended at Fort Sill, they played a role in keeping their countrymen safe and free. To bring Mr. Hemingway back into the discussion, veterans aren't like the rest of us. They are richer in memories. And they have left us richer.