Toritto in Ethiopia – 1965
I never thought much about my military service after it was over.
My young wife and I were glad I was out, discharged after four years in the army on November 17, 1967. We disposed of all of my uniforms save for my field jacket which still hangs in my closet (and still fits!) and the letters we wrote to eachother which she wrapped in ribbon and placed lovingly in my duffel bag. It is still in my garage.
On Thanksgiving 1967 I sat with my bride and family celebrating the holiday while hundreds died on a hillside in Dak To; a hill of no strategic importance which was immediately given up after it was captured in heavy fighting.
It was a time when many were not proud of their service. Vietnam would rage for years and over 52,000 would die there. I had come to the conclusion that the war was a mistake which brought that ominous feeling inside that young men were dying for a lost cause. Tet would put a stamp on it.
My brother served in the war zone. I did not. No one ever shot at me. I had no war stories. I was not one to join the Veterans of Foreign Wars or the American Legion. No one joined those groups at the time. Besides, I didn’t feel like a “veteran”; I never saw combat.
Besides back then just about every poorer young man served. It didn’t seem like anything special to me. My family had fought in every war since World War I. I wasn’t doing anything special. A stint in the military was part of growing up.
Why did I enlist? Well I was a high school graduate working in a bank for over four years and not making enough money to live on my own. I was 21 and was still largely supported by my father, He had an 8th grade education and was getting to that point in his life when he couldn’t do unskilled construction work anymore. I needed to lessen his burden.
I had a girl at the time and we knew we were going to marry eventually. She had just turned 18 so there was no hurry. I went into the army 3 days before President Kennedy was murdered. By Christmas she and I decided not to wait. She married Private Toritto.
Six months later I went to the horn of Africa and we were separated for 18 months. Thus the letters now in the garage.
When I enlisted I looked upon my service as a job and was pretty determined to be a good soldier. I was going to do my duty for God and Country.
After I returned from deployment in Africa I was sent to Texas to get ready for Vietnam. I never went.
A month after my arrival in Texas mom died at age 43; my father was ill and my brother was already in the war zone. My father bitched and I was reassigned close to home.
My job for the remainder of my time was arranging notifications to next of kin of army soldiers from New York State killed in Vietnam. Getting the bodies shipped home. Arranging funerals. completing paper work. Presenting medals. It was soul deadening duty.
When it was over I threw away everything but the letters and the field jacket and never spoke of my service. It was over and I was a lucky one. One of my friends from Africa died in Vietnam and is on the wall.
My daughters were in their late teens when they found out – “YOU were a soldier daddy?” Shock and awe.
By the time they were teenagers the draft had long been repealed. They didn’t know any boys going into the army; didn’t have any girlfriends whose steadies were leaving; didn’t have any cousins in service. The military was for other people; the military was for those who volunteered. All of their friends were going to college and planning careers.
It seemed strange at first when commenters on this blog would thank me for my service. I never thought I deserved thanks. I joined up because I needed to support myself and end my reliance on my family which was on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder. Why thank me for that?
I have three military decorations; 2 medals and an overseas service ribbon I am authorized to wear and never do. Nothing special mind you; nothing for gallantry – but looking back I have acquired a quiet pride in my service over the years. I did as I was ordered, I went where I was sent. I lived for 18 months without my new bride and we gave the nation four years of our lives. She suffered too. I did my best to be a good soldier and did nothing of which I am or my country should be ashamed.
I was there to comfort families who made the ultimate sacrifice; to carry out their wishes. And for them I moved heaven and earth. It is they who deserve the thanks of a grateful nation.
Not me. I always viewed my service as the price of citizenship.