In Service to Our Country

This is a cake

I remember Mark. He was a student of mine at a college where I used to work. He came to me early in the Gulf War and said he received his orders and was on his way to get his affairs in order, his will and other essential documents, as instructed by his superiors, and he would have to miss class. He was nervous and we walked to the cafeteria and sat for a bit, talked about his newborn, talked about what college he might transfer to when he returned, but he never returned.

I’ve had the honor and absolute pleasure to spend almost thirty years teaching veterans—and many active duty members of the military as well—creative writing, art, and literature. Perhaps because of the contrast in their lives to their time spent in Iraq, Afghanistan and other “theaters” of war—a word we talked about in class as ironic while discussing Hamlet or Fences—these women and men have an acute appreciation of all things creative—writing, art, music, even just talking before class. I wish I could remember their names. Some I do, of course, and some I’ll never forget.

Some students’ names stuck; either from their attendance in multiple classes or their outstanding work, or, of course, the occasional underachievers who need a different brand of attention. Still, even with students sitting in front of me two or three days a week for sixteen weeks, the names remained allusive, but not their stories. I taught a class in creative non-fiction and the nine students all wrote about their experiences in places like Fallujah, Kabul, and Baghdad. They read the work aloud and after we all composed ourselves, instead of discussing the work, they would all talk about how each of them could relate to the story. They’d talk, use acronyms and other abbreviations, and laugh or cry while I sat and hoped they knew how proud I was to know them, to be with them, and that they shared their stories. The writing was irrelevant, of course. I am forever grateful I was able to tell them how much I appreciated their sacrifices.

I wish I could recall their names. Numbers, no problem. I remember all the phone numbers I’ve ever had; license plate numbers, even an old friend’s social security number because back in the ‘80s when you mailed a letter to enlisted personnel, you wrote their Social Security Number on the envelope just below the name, right there for everyone to see. Inconceivable today. I thought I’d type it here just for proof, but I changed my mind.

I’ve taught students from all walks of life and all ages, all attitudes with a variety of abilities, but there’s something about the veterans, and I think it is their proximity to sacrifice and death which enables me to etch their lives in my mind. I’ve had family members who served. My uncles Ed and Bob respectively deployed during World War Two and Vietnam, and my Uncle Tom is forever interned at Arlington for his service to the country. I’ve always been against any type of armed conflict, but nowhere near as much against it as these veterans.

Over the course of the thirty years teaching on Little Creek Amphibious Base, I’ve been to several retirement ceremonies at various locales in the area. Once I went to one in Norfolk, Virginia, on the deck of the USS Wisconsin, and the event would make the coldest person break down; to say it was moving would be shallow; the others on that deck experienced what no one should ever experience. A great awareness comes from knowing these veterans; an understanding that I have never truly known “sacrifice”; there has rarely been a moment of danger. That ceremony is another day I will never forget. Oh and at the end they had a cake that looked exactly like a uniform dress shirt with medals, all edible. Very cool.

But once, just one time, I went to an induction ceremony.

It was thirty-five years ago next July. It seemed less formal, probably because it was at an airport hangar and all the enlistees looked so young and scared, and afterwards, after they all filed out the door toward their transport far from home, I wandered out to the car and drove off alone. It was hot that day and I stopped at a State Park and thought about the world and how I had always thought it was so small yet suddenly it was so terribly large. I remember the moment so clearly because while I knew for certain it was obvious how sad everyone was about the departure, I immediately regretted not expressing how deeply, so very deeply, proud I was.

I’m glad that from a few years after that until last year I spent all that time teaching veterans and having the opportunity to tell them instead.

And to my students as well, thank you. And to my friends: Mike Kweder, Jose Roman, Tom Montgomery, Jan Howarth Donatelli, Tom Litwin, Brian Turner, Tim O’Brien, and Kay Miller Debow, thank you.

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