My Dad will never tell you he is a veteran.
He’ll joke that he wasn’t part of a “real” branch of the military, because he was in the Air Force. He won’t say he fought in Vietnam; technically, he didn’t. (He fixed airplane radios at Clark Air Base in the Philippines.) He never wanted to join the military, certainly not in the late ’60s, but he drank himself out of college and instead of being drafted into the Army, chose his own destiny.
He said the Air Force was good for him, made him grow up. He hadn’t finished his bachelor’s degree yet, so he was an enlisted man. But he was smart as hell. He aced his entrance exam. His Tech Sergeant just kept mumbling, “I can’t fuckin’ believe it,” when he scored perfect on every technical test. He made rank easily, outperforming everyone in his shop. And, even though he didn’t want to be there, when the call went out for volunteers for Southeast Asia, he put his hand up.
I don’t think of myself as a veteran. My departure from Active Duty is too fresh. I still have a foot in the Reserves. I’m friends with military folks. I’m not old enough to be a vet yet. Maybe I get this sense of not being qualified from my Dad. (He also taught me that just because someone is enlisted, doesn’t mean they know less than you as an officer – most of the time, it’s much more). I don’t feel like I’ve done enough to hold that title. Sure, I deployed to a combat zone, twice, but I wasn’t really in the shit. I wasn’t really in harm’s way. Those rockets that were sent over the wall on camp weren’t anywhere near us. I wasn’t involved in the Battle of Bastion. Hell, the only time I fired ordnance from my Cobra in-country was to suppress a dirt road. None of this actually counts.
Recently, my Dad stopped at the same gas station he’s used on his way to work for 25 years. It’s halfway between the house and the office. He always brings exact change and he always gets one disgusting cup of convenience store coffee. On this particular morning, the lady behind the counter confronted him with a question he hadn’t heard before. “Sir,” she asked, “are you a veteran?”
He paused. “Yes. Yes, I am.”
“Coffee’s free for vets,” she said.
Dad laughed his full-body chuckle. “What! You tell me this now?” he asked in mock seriousness. “You must owe me about $3,500.00 in coffee.”
If Dad has finally come to his senses and acknowledged his veteran status, perhaps it’s time I did the same.
Happy Veteran’s Day.