STOP THANKING PEOPLE FOR THEIR SERVICE AND START SERVING


The day I arrived back in the US at Travis AFB, later SFO, I was carrying two arm loads of gear from my ship, which I had left about a day earlier in Subic Bay. As I half stumbled with the load along the sidewalk, people would not get out of the way.  I was still in uniform, and I would be until I could dig some civilian clothes out of my luggage, and that wouldn’t happen until after I arrived in San Diego.

That is how I left active duty in June 1977.  Nobody cared where I had been or what I had done, and there was no reason to care.  I filled a billet, I did what many young men did back then, and when my time was up, I rejoined the civilian world. The only things different would be that my hair would remain short—until the quarantine 43 years later—I lined up my shirt buttons with my zipper, and I called a lot of people “sir.”  I was 2 years older as a resident, and back then, that was considered significantly older.  November 11 came and went without my notice.  

For the next 25 years, that is about how things went regarding my past service. I had a few memorabilia on the wall in a bedroom, I drove lawyers crazy by using “sir,” because they expected a doctor to insult them, I guess. I learned a long time earlier that one could use sir in an infinite number of ways, just so the word got spoken. “Aye, aye, SIR!” I once yelled at the executive officer when I left his office having to do something I though was stupid and unnecessary.  I even let loose at an attending my first month, caught myself…and ended up with a “You are full of BULL–uhh-LONEY, SIR.”

It was 9/11 where things changed.  Suddenly, many wanted to get into the service and do something. I remember in 2003 at the AP Stat readers meeting, where a few hundred of us corrected the national AP exams, a couple of teachers were in the national guard and going to Iraq. At the meeting, they asked all veterans to stand. I was surprised.  Never heard that one before. As I stood, there were maybe 10 others in a group of about 200.  Interesting.  It is nationally about 7%.

The next time was Veterans Day that same year when I learned it was a holiday at a school where I was volunteering.  I was so surprised, I blurted out that hey, I was a veteran.  

Since then, there have been yellow ribbons on cars, flags everywhere, especially at football games, and on uniforms the players wore.  We started calling everybody who was serving a hero, which then was used for pretty much anybody who was doing what others didn’t want to do and who never before had been considered one or considered themselves one.  Heroes were also in charge of Abu Ghraib, too, or some of the more unsavory things that we did abroad. The flag got co-opted by one side, even as they did things in its name that the flag most assuredly did not stand for. 

At track meets here in Eugene, veterans and current military personnel are asked to stand before the national anthem. It is a weird and frankly kind of a neat feeling, although again, all I did was fill a billet on a ship.  If I hadn’t been there, some other guy would have had to do it. On Veterans Day, I now wear my ball cap and look for others wearing theirs, too, feeling a kinship over years, countries, and military actions.  One guy a hike with got blown up in Vietnam. He is a biologist and has had a full life. Once, one of the other vets told him that he felt guilty for staying stateside during Vietnam.  

“Don’t ever feel guilty,” the once injured man said.  He wore a hat that said “Peace.”

When Covid hit, I wanted to help.  I was willing to go to the USNS Comfort or Mercy as a medical officer—out of date to be sure, but able to help out in a military setting. It was a big pipe dream, of course, just like going elsewhere to help would have been.  I would have been  another person helping with some medical background, but I didn’t want to be one who got sick and made more work for others. I stayed home, was good, didn’t cause trouble, and did my part not to get infected. 

And so I find it strange, odd, and frankly reprehensible that when public health leaders in the country ask us to wear masks, to socially distance, to not crowd, and basically not to do stupid things, that there has been so much pushback. One of my military veteran former friends said that being worried was a result of watching too much TV.  Armed vigilantes descended on the Capitol here and demanded opening up the state. Wearing masks became a political statement, rather than a simple measure to try to limit the spread of the virus.  People complained that they weren’t being allowed “to live,” when in fact the whole idea of the restrictions was to ensure that more people did live. 

It was certainly a necessary, if unfortunate circumstance that people had to eschew normal human contact. But to don a mask—which can be decorated, like a hard hat or a helmet, or a car—to avoid infecting others and at the same time protecting oneself from infection, seems a tiny price to pay for the ability to again be outside, in public, able to do many things that for a couple of months we couldn’t do.  In Dallas, an increase of 12% absolutely for wearing a mask and social distancing—from 57 to 69%—would cause an outbreak to go from exponential growth to dying out.   A friend of mine went shopping where he counted 8 in 79 wearing a mask. I was surprised it was that high.

A couple of months of being limited in where we could go.  Anne Frank spent 25 months hidden where she was far more restricted than many of us were.  And she ended up dying.  

In Union County, Oregon, a few hundred had to attend church to sing and hold each other, ensuring that in a week 263 would get the virus in a county of about 15,000:  “Science is Real.”

“Thank you for your service” is now said to first responders, medical workers and essential workers. We need to stop saying it and realize all of us have a role in serving right now. We have a role not to get ill, not to enhance the spread of the virus, not to be jerks about it, not run too close to others in parks, or crowd in public.   We had a chance to stop the virus, and right now it looks like we will lose that chance. Wearing masks has somehow become against the constitution, against liberty, the right to infect man, the right to do what one wants, even if it infringes upon someone else’s rights—especially if that someone else is a Democrat.  

We have grown soft as a people. We are so concerned about our rights, we have forgotten about our responsibilities to collectively improve society. We want everything we want now.  But we aren’t willing to compromise a bit on anything that we think infringes upon our rights to do whatever we want without regard to consequences, costs to others, or anything else smacking of collaboration or helping one’s fellow person.

Wearing a mask is serving the country.  Use a face shield if one wants, but do something positive and useful. 

Thank you for…not being a jerk.

Face shields are easy to put on, allow one’s expression to be seen, and protect one’s eyes, which a mask can’t do.

The ball cap is wearing out, but the jacket still fits. 2016.
One can serve by volunteering outdoors, clearing trails. The author (right), Waldo Lake Wilderness, June 2019.
or…one can go on sites like zooniverse and help transcribe data from outer space, biology, physics, social sciences, or here, the names of prisoners at Mauthausen and other places, so that those who died are remembered. I visited Mauthausen, saw the “Gas Kammer” and the places where prisoners either had to jump into a quarry or be shot. It is a deep honor to be allowed to be part of the project.

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