From Longtime Reader Dave L:
I come from an Army family. My dad traveled across France as a medic with the First Infantry Division. My step brother served as an infantryman in Vietnam with the same First Infantry Division. He came home in 1969, just as I graduated high school and said that the best thing I could do was to stay out of the army. Back in those days there was a government job program called the draft and I knew that they were going to get me. I thought that the Navy might give me a chance to travel, wear a very cool looking uniform, and maybe learn some technical stuff that I could use later in my life.
I also thought that I would be able to stay out of VietNam. However Uncle Sam’s plans weren’t the same as mine and I ended up there anyway. About all I have to show for it is a baseball cap that says “US Navy Veteran” – and I had to buy that.
So today my thoughts are for all of the old men in baseball caps.
Some years back I was honored to call an older English gentleman my friend. He served in the British Army in WW2 in North Africa and on the island of Crete. He was captured when the Germans invaded that island and spent almost three years as a prisoner of war. He remained in the army after the war to retire as a senior NCO with over 25 years of service. My English friend sent me pictures of their yearly veteran’s ceremonies. Every vet put on a blazer, wore his regimental tie and beret, and pinned his decorations to his jacket. They made their way to the local veterans’ memorial and laid a wreath in memory of their absent comrades. Then they retired to the local pub and lifted a glass to honor those who had gone on to report to a higher power. The men who chased Rommel across the desert and went ashore in Normandy are still be a bit thirsty.
We Americans don’t wear our ribbons. Mine are on the wall in a shadow box, faded by time. Most of us don’t wear ties except for weddings and funerals and berets are only worn by Frenchmen.
So what do we wear? Baseball caps – that great American invention. We mark our caps with our heritage – the Big Red One, the First Marines, the Strategic Air Command. The navy men wear blue caps with the names of proud ships – USS Enterprise, USS New Jersey, Lexington, Newport News. Unless you’ve been there you don’t know a CVA from a CA or a BB from an FFG, but we know.
The old men see fire and rain and Thuds and Phantoms in the hazy sky. They still hear that distinctive rotor beat of the Hueys. They see long gray ships silhouetted against the horizon and remember the days when they were dirty and tired and hungry. They remember playing rock and roll out to the tree line in 7.62 NATO time They remember the catapults throwing Skyhawks into the air. plane after plane, and doing it all again the next day and the day after that.
They were bored and tired and sometimes frightened, those old men who wear the hats. They came home to a country that didn’t understand and really didn’t care what they had done. Today they fight the diseases and the ghosts of those far off days. They will tell you where they’re going, but don’t ask them where they’ve been.
The old men in hats shake hands when they meet. They ask “Where were you? What did you do?” and they sometimes say “Yeah I was there too”. Mostly they understand. For that minute in the middle of WalMart they’re nineteen years old again and tired and scared. Then they thank God that they made it home and they remember those who didn’t.
And the old men get into their cars and go about their business. If you look closely you might see the smoke and the tracers and the dead men behind their eyes. Sometimes they won’t hear you because their ears have rung since those days of steam turbines and jet engines and heavy artillery.
They stand and salute when the flag passes by because they learned of respect and honor in a hard school and that education has never left them. Sometimes the old men wake in the middle of the night and hear the band playing The Stars and Stripes Forever and they smile just a little and whisper to themselves “I’d do it all again.”
God bless the old men who wear the hats.
Reprinted with permission.