A Veteran’s Memory
This weekend we will observe a Federal holiday, Veterans Day, November 11. For generations we have honored veterans of WWI and WWII, and then Korea, Vietnam, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today is another significant date: November 9, the day when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. It marks a milestone for veterans of another significant conflict, the Cold War. It was a war without bombs and bullets. Its victory was earned by the resolve of two generations of forgotten patriots, many drafted, who served in uniform. They are often overlooked, but they numbered in the millions over that long Cold War period.
By Harry Puncec
Perhaps you’ve noticed him taking his morning walk around the neighborhood. He takes the same route at the same time every day, clearly a person schooled in schedule and routine. It’s easy to ignore him as he and his walk have been a fixture for as long as you’ve lived nearby. There he goes again you might think, and wonder just what is his story.
You don’t know much about him as he’s quiet and stays near home. He and his wife drive off for a few hours occasionally, visiting the grandkids probably, but are always home before dark. His yard looks good as he’s often out trimming the shrubs and pulling weeds. When you pass by on your run he looks up, smiles softly, and nods. Not much of a greeting but friendly enough.
He has those specialty plates, “Honorably Discharged Veteran”, on his car and you wonder when he served and if he saw action. It’s hard to imagine him lasting 5 minutes in combat but he must have been young and vital once. Regardless of when and where he did his military duty he seems to have come home in one piece, not like those broken soldiers often featured in news stories, thank God.
His story is less – and more – than you might imagine. He was a Cold War warrior and never heard a shot fired in anger. His unit was always on call of course and he could have been pulled into a perilous situation overnight, but after a couple years of field training he adjusted to the tiresome routine of being ready but never sent. During those years he never forgot that his enlistment demanded total commitment until discharge – or until that last full measure of devotion he offered was redeemed.
What he never completely adjusted to in the military was the total immersion it required. As a child he was the center of a family’s affection and lived for its holiday rituals. In the service he vanished into the unit, an insignificant strand in a massive cable. He spent his birthdays, Thanksgivings, and Christmases in a foreign land within a randomly assembled troop of strangers. After a while they became family, one with branches in every race, cultural background, and regional distinction. Some he didn’t care for much, but most were solid guys who could be counted on in a pinch. A few even became close friends – buddies – who he knew would get him safely back to the barracks after a night of satisfying excess. They were still close a half century later.
The customs of the military became second nature. He liked to stand at attention and salute the flag, a flag he now understood, and he found that being part of the unit had its own special satisfaction; his company was the best in the battalion, the battalion kicked ass, and his army still unconquered. His bonding reached its emotional peak when he put on the history-enriched Class A uniform, an act of belonging that fired an intense pride he hadn’t expected and cherishes still.
As the years passed he changed, and he rather liked the man he became. Acceptance of austere conditions and stern duty drove an emerging adulthood while a quiet focus replaced his teen drift. His buddies, he learned to his intense pleasure, sensed this maturity and trusted him. He vowed that unto death he would keep that confidence, not as a hero but as a man devoted to his own.
After discharge, as he raced to catch up with old classmates who had ducked service, he completed the education he now embraced and landed a job that supported a good life with wife and kids. It was an agreeably comfortable life, for which he was grateful, but one without the adventure and intensity of the military. No matter as he never forgot what once was. Now when he takes that walk in retirement, nodding to neighbors and smiling at the kids at play, he knows that in a tiny way in that time long, long ago helped guarantee the security of this day, and reserved his honored place in it.
Harry Puncec served in the U.S. Army from 1959 to 1962. This essay was first published in the Denver Post online edition on November 10, 2009.