Sunday, May 25, 2014

Memorial Day

I live with a strange dichotomy every Memorial Day.

As a child of the 1950s I was to become eligible to participate in the Vietnam War. But the idea of enlisting in the military, especially then, especially with a war that I opposed and thought to be particularly immoral as wars go, was anathema to me — as it was to hundreds of thousands of others in my generation.

And while I dutifully enrolled for conscription, I was never called. I had a student deferment in my college years and a ridiculously high number in the draft lottery (262) for men born in 1951. It was likely I would never be called for service (I've been told lottery picks rarely got past No. 100 in a given year), so I never made plans to become a Canadian.

I was lucky, and I knew it.

Meanwhile — and here's the dichotomy — I was engrossed by most things military. In 1959, my father — who served a year as a counselor in the American Red Cross — was stationed at Pease Air Force Base in Portsmouth, NH. This was during the growing anxiety of the Cold War era and Portsmouth was no doubt a target on the Kremlin's planning boards. Not only was there an air force base near the city, but a naval base as well. I spent a year of my life surrounded by submarines, B-47s and stockpiles of nuclear bombs.

I soon became a dedicated student of U.S. history with special interests in the Civil War and World War II — interests that I carry to this day. I am fascinated by troop movements, strategy and tactics, the weapons of war. I've held a Spencer carbine in my hands and I've flown in a B-24.

Somewhere between the end of the Vietnam era and the current Iraq-Iran-Afghanistan imbroglios, my respect for the military increased. Part of that may be because I aged out and was no longer a threat to be called to duty. Another reason is that my brother, David, did enlist. He did that during the Vietnam era. (He likes to point out that he enlisted in an all-conscript army. Duh).

My brother, David, during his U.S. Army career. A salute.
That he did enlist is such an un-Wehrle-like thing to do. As far as I know, Wehrles managed to avoid most wars. Grandpa served as a warrant officer (whatever that is) during World War II but never went overseas and never saw combat; Dad was in college during the Korean era, and, well, now you know about me.

David, however, was a middle son and something of a wild child. He enlisted in the U.S. Army and did his basic training at Fort Dix. Turns out, the military was just the thing for him. He was first stationed at Fort Rucker, AL, where he became a military firefighter. If the military are regarded as the ultimate first responders, I figure as a firefighter he became a first responder first responder.

His next deployment, in the military's infinite wisdom, took him out of the sweltering heat of Alabama and into the blistering cold of Anchorage, AK, where he became a firefighter at Fort Richardson-Elmendorf Air Force Base. He's been in Anchorage ever since, preferring to stay there even following his discharge and where he became a firefighter in civilian life. He is our family's own Northern Light.

And I can't tell you enough how proud I am of him for his service. As I am of most veterans I know.

Ironically, military service (at least temporarily) takes away several of the basic Constitutional rights that you swear to protect and defend — try invoking your right to free speech while being dressed down by a superior, you maggot, or leaving your post whenever you feel the urge to roam — AWOL. So for somebody to become GI, either as a conscript or a volunteer, deserves reflection.

There are other ways to reflect as well. One of the most moving moments I can remember came in Gettysburg. I was walking through the National Cemetery where the graves of all the fallen Union soldiers were marked by little American flags, and it fairly took my breath away.

Another moment came in Washington, DC years ago. Kim and I were strolling the grounds near the Lincoln Memorial when we walked down a flight of steps at Constitution Gardens and turned a corner — unexpectedly coming face to face with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. In a city of monuments, I was taken with its grace and simplicity and almost immediately brought to silent tears by the 58,000 names etched on the stark gabbro walls.

Given the era in which I lived, it was probably a no-brainer that I would never become military. But it was also a certainty that I would hold those who served in a kind of awe.

So thank you, David. And Paul. And Charles. And Eugene. And Roger. And Jerry. And to all the unknown others I'll never meet. Thank you.

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