Column: A new perspective on my military service

By MIKE SKINNER

For the Valley News

Published: 11-17-2023 3:53 PM

I was in the DHMC Imaging Center not long ago being prepped for a CAT scan. The waiting room is large, with perhaps 50 or more seats. As often happens, some of the seats are filled with sad looking middle-aged men waiting for their name to be called by a technician. A few of them wore baseball hats with insignias that identified which military branch they proudly served in decades ago. Navy. Marines. Air Force. Coast Guard. Vietnam Vet. I often introduce myself and speak up if I sit near one of them, since I didn’t own a baseball cap.

“You were in the Navy, huh? I was Army,” I’d say, and we’d have a maybe 10-minute talk about our experiences. Inevitably, their wives or brothers or friends sitting next to him would speak up, too.

“You’re a veteran, too?” they would ask. “Well, sir, thank you very much for your service.” They were Upper Valley strangers who offered their hand to shake mine, friendly and kind and so respectful.

But their thanks made me feel so awkward, as if I were a veteran with a Purple Heart or a Distinguished Service Cross medal. I felt like an imposter, but I was gracious and said “thank you” for their “thank you.”

I am a Vietnam War-era Army veteran. I trained over a year as a medic at Fort Sam Houston in Texas, and I finished my four-year military stint at an Army hospital in Fort Devens, Mass.

But I am not a combat veteran, a special category of war veteran, who I define as soldiers who likely came face-to-face with an enemy or artillery shell looking to kill them first. Nowhere will you find the word “combat” in front of my Army biography.

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Not that I didn’t lie on my bunk many nights wondering what my orders the next day might bring. The most anxious time was at the end of our 10-week medic training, when 60 or so of us got our orders to go somewhere else. Most got orders for Vietnam, some for Germany or South Korea, and a few for further training, a sort of graduate school for medics. I was in the latter category, to be stationed at the massive, manicured Fort Sam Houston for another year and finally transferred to the equally manicured Fort Devens.

Feeling fake, I don’t march in Veterans Day parades or attend celebration breakfasts. I do not adorn my license plates with the word Veteran or wear a hat that says Army Vet. I don’t even own any remnants of Army life, especially my long-ago, 32-waist Class A uniforms or ratty fatigue jacket.

The only thing I still mention is that I was a medic in the Army, since it began my long career in health care.

And this essay isn’t about how I wish I had been in combat. As a hospital medic, I saw the downstream effect on combat soldiers who came back stateside from war with horrendous physical and emotional disabilities. The most jarring assignment I had was taking care of badly burned soldiers at Brooke Army Medical Center. That cleared away my romantic ideas of heroic battles. I thank goodness for the Army decision-makers who overlooked me when it came time to anoint which soldier went to war. It felt like a simple — and unfair — roll of the dice.

As I do every year, I send a Happy Veterans Day email or text to friends who served.

Tom is a friend of a friend who I met a few times over the years. He is a friendly and gregarious fellow, a church-going member of his community; that’s where my friend met him. We both were medics during the Vietnam War era, but he went overseas and while I went to further training in the States.

There is much to Tom’s backstory that I suspect is fascinating. But I do know he had a horrific experience in Vietnam as a medic, rendering him incapable of talking about the trauma he often faced. He has revealed only bits and pieces to our mutual friend.

Last year, like past Veterans Days, Tom was in Washington, D.C., at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, reading aloud the roster of names of veterans who died as a result of combat in Vietnam. And there I sat in the Upper Valley with my smartphone wondering whether sending a simple Happy Veterans Day message to him felt adequate.

Here is what I texted: “Tom, I wanted you to know I am thinking of you on this Veterans Day.”

Here is what he texted back: “Thank you, Mike. And thank you for your service to our country. I’m proud to know you.”

Tom the combat medic thanked me, the hospital medic, for my service to our country. And he is proud of me.

I am awed by that simple message. How gracious of him to help me feel more prideful of my being even a small part of the military.

And thank you for your service, Tom. Your simple message means so much more to me than you can know. That simple but fateful roll of the dice made you a more gracious man than I will ever be.

Mike Skinner lives in Lebanon and can be reached at mikeandpams@comcast.net.