There are anniversaries, and there are milestones. In the last month or so I’ve noted a couple of them. In December, I celebrated 50 years since my return from Vietnam. In January I celebrated 20 years since I met Lillian, my “current wife,” as Dean Meyer likes to say.
Today is another of those red-letter days. Fifty years ago today I stood on the deck of the U.S. Navy Aircraft Carrier USS Oriskany for the last time and saluted the flag flying high up on the island above the flight deck, where I had stood duty hundreds of times during flight operations in the Gulf of Tonkin.
Then I walked off the ship with a DD 214 in my hand, my “Discharge Paper.” I was a Civilian, with a capital “C,” for the first time in nearly four years. You veterans know that DD 214 is the most valuable piece of paper we ever got. For me, it got me a college education, a low-interest loan for a house in the country, and as I grew old, some medical benefits, thanks to something called the GI Bill, enacted by the United States Congress, the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, while our country was still at war.
Millions of us have benefited from the GI Bill. If I become feeble in my old age, they might even have a room for me in the Old Soldier’s Home, with a whole bunch of other old salty dogs. Could even be a room beside my old friend Dick Dobson, who says the living there is pretty good. Oh, the stories we’ll tell.
DD 214. Honorable discharge from the United States Navy. February 15, 1972. If you take a look, you’ll see that I only served three years, nine months and ten days of my four-year hitch. That’s because the Navy had a policy of letting you out a little early, up to three months, if you were planning to go back to college after your service. They called it an “Early Out.” My old friend Dr. Paul Larsen, Dean of the College back in Dickinson, North Dakota, fixed that up for me, sending me in the mail another valuable document, an admission letter to Spring Quarter 1972 at Dickinson State College. Dang, I wish I had saved that too.
So fifty years ago today I was heading home, where I would resume classes after a four-year hiatus, looking forward to a part-time job as a wedding and portrait photographer for Buzz Osborn at Osborn’s Studio in Dickinson (thanks to my Navy photography training and experience) and a GI Bill check in the mail each month to pay the way.
DD 214. That valuable, and now somewhat faded and frayed, piece of paper has traveled with me over a lot of miles, and it has been stashed in a lot of filing cabinets—a treasured memento. I’m guessing just about every veteran still has theirs.
Just last week I visited a new doctor, and he noted that the Veterans Administration was helping me to pay my medical bills. He was a friendly fellow, much younger than me, and he struck up a conversation, learning I had been in the Navy during the Vietnam years. Then he innocently asked me what I thought was a pretty foolish question: “Did you enjoy your time in the Navy?”
That’s not a question anyone should ever ask a Vietnam veteran. There’s a reason the Veterans Administration is helping veterans pay for their medical bills late in life. Something went awry during their time in service, something that likely changed the course of their life at some point after their discharge, something that was definitely not enjoyable.
But that’s water under the bridge. None of us who got those DD 214’s 50 years ago could possibly have imagined we’d still be around to celebrate this milestone. Hooray for us, and for all the others who are celebrating with me today. Let’s have a beer. Or two, or three, like we did on that night 50 years ago. And let’s think about what comes next, not about what has gone by. Because we’re still here. Ain’t that something?