I joined the Navy in March 1958 and served until July 1962. As far as I can recall, the only U.S. serviceman shot at during that period was Francis Gary Powers, who was flying a U-2 in Soviet airspace. That sounds from a distance like a quiet time. But it was the height of the Cold War, with massive numbers of nuclear weapons on both sides. The possibility of any agreement between us and the Soviets seemed out of the question. There was a sense that catastrophe was inevitable, and it was only a matter of time. I suspect it's why, a few years later, the country loved The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming and Dr. Strangelove so much. They got us laughing during an era when we desperately needed it.
But it wasn't just veterans who were at risk then. A nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union would have taken everybody out. We were all in it together. One of my most vivid memories is sitting in my car outside the Philadelphia Library three months after I'd come home, listening to radio reports of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
As unsettling as that was, it was a completely different experience from the one that most veterans go through now, fighting wars in strange places against an enemy that doesn't wear uniforms and sometimes seems to think getting killed has a serious benefit. I signed on at a time when the choice was join or be drafted. Since the Reagan administration, our military has been comprised exclusively of volunteers.
We just celebrated Veterans' Day. Around the country, that involves parades, ceremonies, speeches, and sometimes concerts. I had never joined any of the parades because I'd always felt they should be reserved for people who've actually been in combat. But this year I was asked to participate. So I did.
The parade took place on St Simons Island in Georgia. A young woman with a convertible offered me a ride and I was happy to accept. (I wasn't sure about the length of the event, and I don't do three-mile walks anymore.) It's the first parade of any kind I've been in since my Boy Scout days.
We had a substantial number of veterans, a marching band, a police escort, boy and girl scouts and a cub pack. And crowded sidewalks. We started and people immediately began cheering and waving flags. At one point we were asked to stop so a girl who was about nine years old could hand me a home-made card, with a flag drawn inside, thanking me for my service, and signed with love. It continued that way throughout the event. A unique experience.
And I learned something: Veterans' Day isn't just about the men and women who put their lives on the line. It's about their families, who are also at risk. And the rest of us, who care about them and the nation. I've never heard a shot fired in combat, but on Tuesday that didn't matter. We're still all in it together. And I should admit also that I was proud of the company I was keeping.