Originally printed in The New York Post
November 11, 2003
They looked so old. That was the thing that struck me. Men in their late thirties, they looked at least ten—sometimes twenty—years older. And they were the survivors.
I was a lieutenant when I reported in to the 1st Battalion of the 46th Infantry. As an enlisted man in the bitter peace of the 1970s, I had already seen the wreckage of Vietnam, the noncommissioned officers so badly shot up that they could no longer serve in the infantry but had to be posted to easier jobs in support units to “make their twenty”.
I had seen them limping and scarred, with rebuilt jaws and reconstructed limbs—still serving as best they could, hanging on to their pride as younger men like me, untried by war, left them behind in a short march to the parade ground.
I had seen them, but never quite the way I did as a new officer in an Infantry outfit. These NCOs had been healed of their wounds sufficiently to return to the work they loved hopelessly and complained about endlessly. Their faces had been burned by the sun in the jungle clearings and cut by winter sleet. Awful chow had ruined their guts and—in those days—far too many cigarettes, along with an irrational devotion to doing freedom’s toughest job, had ravaged them. They’d spent hard years away from the healing comfort of loved ones. They looked old and worn and battered.
They were proud men. The best of them were master teachers, rigorous but fair with the young soldiers entrusted to their care and determined to make “their” lieutenant the finest in the battalion. They cursed and mocked and worked miracles.
None of us fully appreciated them, of course. We said we did and meant well. But we were officers. We would serve our troop-time and then move on to staff jobs and schools, returning to tactical units now and then to punch our tickets.
We made a great display of waiting until the enlisted men were fed before we ate, of being fitter and fleeter than the NCOs, of leading by example. We shared their hardships, sleeping in the snow or rain, competing to show how tough we were. But as we moved on to further our careers, “old sarge” remained behind, shifting from one Infantry battalion to another, perhaps drawing the odd staff job he hated automatically because a good NCO despised “staff weenies”.
We meant to treat them fairly, but the truth is that we didn’t. We relied on them, but they could never fully rely on us. We were only passing through. The battalion—some battalion—would always be their home. They welcomed us as tourists.
After Vietnam, those men faced constant complaints from civilians about the generosity of military pensions. Half-pay after only twenty years? It was an outrageous waste, according to those who avoided serving their country. Yet far too many of the NCOs I knew were unlikely to live to collect their Social Security. They did the work the Harvard grads would never have dreamed of doing and gave us the best of their lives. And got half-pay in a broken-health retirement.
Grocery chains campaigned against the military commissaries that allowed soldiers to feed their families more cheaply. The system was “unfair competition”, according to the business execs whose families never had to stretch the chili-mac.
Military medicine (much improved now) was a shambles. Military housing (still inadequate) was often so bad that a civilian landlord offering the equivalent would have been sued as a slumlord.
One sergeant first class I remember, a Vietnam vet just short of retirement, died of a heart attack during a physical training run. Friends watched a young NCO drown in a few inches of ditch water after his tracked vehicle flipped over during training. The vehicle was so heavy that nothing could be done. They watched him struggle to free himself, then go limp. Another NCO died of a broken heart, I think, after his dream of being a first sergeant was unjustly frustrated.
All this was in peacetime. Today, we are at war again. The pay’s better, as is the medical care. The commissary system survives but remains a target of corporate grocers and bureaucrats for whom outsourcing is a secular religion.
And the NCO is still my candidate for the most underpaid professional in any walk of life.
Oh, the enlisted soldier always has politicians ready to pat him—or her—on the back and pose for a photo op. The rhetoric gushed over our troops would make an advertising copywriter blush. As elections loom, no congressman rations the attaboys.
But there’s little substance behind the ringing words. The truth is that soldiers have few friends on Capitol Hill. They aren’t big campaign contributors or powerful lobbyists. When it comes down to the crunch, the money-men win and the veterans make do.
Elected officials lavish praise on our troops, but lavish money on their revolving-door pals in the defense industry. Indeed, Operation Iraqi Freedom was supposed to prove that the old-fashioned soldier isn’t even a major player on today’s battlefields, that technology trumps all.
Yet the road to Baghdad was opened by soldiers and Marines fighting in close-quarters combat. And the dangerous work of building peace doesn’t lend itself to technological solutions. Conflict is, above all, a human problem—and human problems require human solutions.
The thanks of a grateful nation? A proposal to add a mere 10,000 troops to our overstretched Army died a rapid death. Instead, we’re buying nearly useless F-22 fighters at one hundred and fifty million dollars each. While our soldiers in Iraq don’t have enough body armor. There isn’t much profit in equipping infantrymen, you see.
The only thing that always ends is peace. And then we turn, again, to those in uniform.
Think about them today.
My heartfelt thank you to those in uniform and their families, past and present, for your sacrifice. I will remember.