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A grateful veteran thanks his peers

Steve Johnson Steve Johnson

I was in the military. By default, I am a veteran.

I “served” in the United States Army during the height of the Vietnam War, from 1970 to 1972. It was a time that some called the ugly part of that war. It had already divided our country, and most of the soldiers who were there didn’t want to be there, and some bad things resulted from that. But I didn’t serve in Vietnam. In a nutshell, here’s the extent of my military service. 

I graduated from college in June 1970 with an ROTC commission as a 2nd lieutenant in the Army. I entered Officer Basic Training in Field Artillery at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, in October of that year. While at Fort Sill, we learned that about 80 percent of our class would be sent to Vietnam, and to be honest, most of us did not want to go. But as luck would have it, I fell into the 20 percent that were “designated for assignment” elsewhere. I was assigned to serve with a Nike Hercules Air Defense Missile unit in West Germany. Goooood Morning Oktoberfest, Auf Wiedershen Vietnam!

So after having a “good time” in Germany for a year-and-a-half, I resigned my commission in October of 1972, came home, and began the next phase of my normal, non-military life. I would often look back on what had been a fun-packed two years of my life in the military, and I was proud of it.

But as time went by, and I began seeing how poorly returning Vietnam vets were being treated, and began to watch our country’s decline in this so-called “pointless” police action in Vietnam, my pride for having served in the military began to wane. I began to realize that I had made very little sacrifice during those two years of my life in the Army — nothing compared to what those real soldiers had been through. 

Do I wish I had gone to Vietnam? Maybe, and I wrestle with that question from time to time. I am still grateful for those two years I spent in the Army; I’m just not overly proud of what I did during that time. If I could have chosen to go to Vietnam and come home physically and mentally unscathed, then yes, I might have chosen to go. But in life we don’t get to make easy choices like that very often.

And I also wrestle with this question: Why are those of us who served in the military in the ’60s and ’70s now “thanked” for being heroes, just like those who have served in the Middle Eastern conflicts since. Why are we heroes now? After all, as I mentioned, we were not treated as heroes then. 

As far as I know, the phrase “Thank you for your service“ started being used only after 9/11. We owe no greater debt than to those who served in the two Great Wars and the conflicts that followed, but we never really started thanking them until after 9/11, did we? So why are we heroes now? Here are a couple of thoughts on that:

In Vietnam, unlike our involvement in WWII, which followed the attack on Pearl Harbor, we were the aggressor. Maybe, if the North Vietnamese had attacked the West Coast, blown up the Golden Gate Bridge, and bombed Hollywood (not a terrible idea), the general public might have felt differently about our presence in Vietnam, just like we felt after the terrorist attacks on our country in 2001.

And maybe it was just a timing thing, that our country just wasn’t in the mood (remember, it was the ’60s!) to accept our war of aggression in Southeast Asia. There, we were basically doing something similar to what we had done in earlier wars — fighting the spread of the Big Evil in the world at that time, Communism, just like we were doing in those wars where we were fighting Nazism, Imperialism and Islamic Terrorism. I see very little difference. And maybe that’s what the public now (subconsciously) realizes.

I think it is a good thing to thank a veteran for his or her service. You don’t have to know whether they fought, like so many did, or played, like me. It doesn’t matter if they were in WWII, Korea, Vietnam or any of the conflicts that followed. It just matters that they took a couple of years, or thirty-plus years, out of their “normal” lives to do something good and honorable for our country.

And no, I am not singing my praises, for I am among the least of these! But I do think it sets a great example for others, especially the younger among us, that these HEROES are why we live in the greatest, safest and free-est nation in the world.

  So the next time you see one, thank a veteran. Maybe, just maybe, We Are All Heroes Now!

Steve Johnson has lived in Hendersonville since 1977 with his wife, Sharon, a Hendersonville native, where they own and operate Southern Alarm & Security. They have two daughters, Erin, a missionary in the Philippines, and Emily, who lives here with her husband, Mark, and three children Haenle, Ella and Mara. He served two years active duty in the U.S. Army and four years in the inactive Reserves before being discharged with the rank of Captain in 1976.