Morgantown, West Virginia, United States (Spring 2018)
US Military Hospital Kuwait at Camp Arifjan in the summer of 2005.
As a reservist, I had heard those words on numerous occasions. I appreciated and understood that those words were not directed specifically towards me, but rather to the uniform that I was wearing. Although I had spent twenty-five years in uniform, I felt unworthy and undeserving of those words. I had not been to war. I had not personally observed the fresh and raw carnage produced by war. That perspective would change.
* * * * * *
As the large charter jet touched down on the runway at Bangor, Maine, a loud spontaneous cheer and applause erupted as the pilot simultaneously announced over the speaker, “Welcome home!”
After a long absence, we were once again on US soil.
Emerging into the otherwise empty airport at 5 AM, what greeted us was totally unexpected. There was a long gauntlet of about fifty members of a local VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) post personally greeting each of us, thanking us for our service.
I soon found myself talking with the VFW post commander. Virtually all of these VFW members were wearing patches that identified them as Vietnam veterans. I thanked the post commander for the warm and heartfelt greeting shown to my sailors and asked him why they had singled out our flight for such special attention. He informed me that they had not singled us out. They greeted every flight bringing home American “heroes.”
I told him that we were not heroes; we were a medical unit that had staffed a combat support hospital (US Military Hospital Kuwait). We had only done our duty. Not a single sailor in my unit had earned a valor medal or Purple Heart. And I was personally very grateful about that fact. I told the commander that his post members were more heroic than we were and had not received such a warm welcome home. He acknowledged my observation and informed me that was exactly the reason they were there at five in the morning to greet us.
The VFW post commander further told me I should not be apologetic about the character of our service; adding that he suspected that many soldiers and marines had returned home alive to their families because of our efforts. That comment evoked a flood of recent uncomfortable memories. I certainly hoped – and needed to believe – that his statement was accurate. Indeed, every service member that had reached our combat support hospital alive had survived to be evacuated to Germany. That fact still amazes me, especially considering the severity of many injuries. I suspect the youth and health of our patients was as important as any skill or tenacity of efforts on our part.
However, his very presence and words suddenly evoked a troubling realization with even greater impact than my recent experience with war. I was speaking to my future self. “The why and the what for” of war inevitably fades and evolves over time. Vietnam had been their war. Operation Iraqi Freedom had been our war. Past and future combatants had and would have their wars. The sudden recognition that I had just participated in the tragic cycle of “killing and being killed” that is war was disturbing and disheartening.
At that moment, one of my senior enlisted sailors interrupted us. He had located someone who would open an airport bar if it were all right with me. I looked at the post commander.
“Don’t look at me, Captain,” he replied. “You’re the skipper.”
We had a three-hour layover in Bangor and then a several hour flight before we landed in Gulfport, Mississippi. I knew that two admirals were going to be there to greet our flight. The last thing I wanted was for them to observe a rowdy bunch of drunken sailors emerge from the jet. I had made it this far without losing my command. However, I figured there would be enough time on the flight from Bangor to Gulfport to sober up. I made my last command decision of this tour of duty. I would not stand between my sailors and beer.
I continued talking to the VFW post commander. As soon as we emptied our beers, two more would magically appear. We did not pay for a single beer. There was no more talk of war or its unavoidable and inevitable tragedies, just shared humorous stories of military life. The post commander commented that this was the best welcome home airport party he had seen. I lost count of my consumed beers at six. I knew very well what was occurring. The troops were keeping “the old man” occupied and content so that he would not stifle their party. I also knew that my Command Master Chief (the unit’s senior enlisted sailor who fortunately did not drink) would keep things from getting out of hand and me out of trouble.
Airport officials did not seem to mind the loud, boisterous, and jovial large group of sailors dressed in desert camouflage uniforms and VFW members with Vietnam patches on their jackets.
* * * * * *
I slept soundly on the flight to Gulfport.
As expected, the two admirals greeted us at the airport. They both made a short speech, thanking us profusely for our service and sacrifice to the country. We were reservists. We had just spent nearly a year away from family and civilian jobs. Now we would have to reintegrate ourselves back into our homes and workplaces.
After the meet and greet with the flag officers, they invited me, my Executive Officer, and my Command Master Chief to go on a tour with them along the Gulfport and Biloxi area Gulf Coast shoreline.
Gulfport was not the same place we had performed our pre-deployment training eleven months earlier. The destruction two months after Hurricane Katrina was utter and complete. The casinos and restaurants we had frequented during that training were gone. In our tactical military vehicles, we were able to drive past all police barricades. Even after two months, all activity seemed focused on clearing and removing debris. There was no reconstruction activity.
If I had felt any sense of self-pity for hardship we had endured in the desert, those feelings were thoroughly squelched by the realization of what people along the Gulf Coast had recently endured.
I just wanted to quickly get out of there and go home. I rushed through the de-mobilization process, answering “no” to any question that could possibly delay the process. I was on a commercial jet heading home less than forty-eight hours after landing in Gulfport.
* * * * * *
“Thank you for your service.” The words brought me out of deep thought as I sat alone in a connecting airport in my desert camouflage uniform on the way home.
“Thank you for your appreciation,” I automatically replied.
The man standing before me was a middle-aged man in a finely attired business suit carrying a leather briefcase.
“Sir, will you do me the honor of letting me do something for you?” His look was sincere and his eyes looked teary.
“Thank you very much, but I am fine,” I said, thinking and hoping that I did not look that pitiful.
“Please let me at least buy you a Coke,” he pleaded.
“It’s really not necessary, but I drink Diet Coke,” I replied acquiescing.
The man went to a nearby vending machine, bought a Diet Coke, and brought it back to me. He again thanked me for my service, I thanked him for his gratitude, and he walked away. Something told me that there was a deeper unstated story and meaning behind his gesture of kindness.
* * * * * *
I was back to work at my civilian physician job seventy-two hours later. I would pass through Gulfport three years later on my way to field training at Camp Shelby, Mississippi. Gulfport by then looked much as I had remembered it prior to Katrina.
* * * * * *
I am no longer in uniform. However, I did spend twenty-nine years in uniform. I did eventually go to war. When people learn of that background, many do say, “Thank you for your service.” Do I still feel unworthy and undeserving of those words after going to war? Absolutely. More so than ever. Why?
First, I had not sustained so much as a physical scratch. I am quite familiar with the phrase, “Some gave all; all gave some.” I understand and appreciate the intended sentiment. However, I cannot compare myself to those that gave so much or gave all. They are the ones that deserve and are worthy of gratitude.
Second, I am uneasy about being thanked for participating in the killing and being killed activity that is war. War is such an awful and nasty business.
JACK RIGGS, MD, is a professor of neurology at West Virginia University. He spent 29 years in the Navy Reserve before retiring as a captain. He served almost one year as commanding officer of a combat support hospital in the Middle East.