A few decades ago I was in the Navy Reserve. I was in an intelligence unit at a Naval Air Station in New Orleans where we were engaged in what I thought was fairly important work.
We did aerial photo reconnaissance analysis and did studies on problems that might be expected in a Middle Eastern conflict. But I was never shot at. I worked at the Air Station one weekend a month and did active duty at Norfolk, Va.
But I do have the highest admiration for the men and women who wear the uniform and who go in harm’s way. A year or two ago Mary and I saw three splendid looking young soldiers, in dress uniform, eating at Chili’s. Each of them wore, among numerous other decorations, the Combat Infantry Badge. That means that they had been under the gun, shot at, in close combat.
I wanted to tell their server that their lunch was on me, but I felt that would embarrass them and that’s the last thing I would have wanted to happen. That feeling was confirmed when a man went up to their booth to thank them and they seemed reluctant to talk. In their minds, I think, they felt they had done their job and just wanted to enjoy a good lunch.
I tear up when I see on TV that a Louisiana warrior has been killed in action overseas. One of the hardest things I ever had to do was to cover for the New Orleans Times-Picayune the funerals of five young Louisiana National Guard soldiers, all from the same unit based in the Houma area, who were killed in the First Iraq War.
I made it clear to the families that my stories would honor their fallen loved ones and would respect what they did. Those lovely Cajun people were most gracious to me and, even in their grief, were willing to sit down with me and share some memories.
I have always liked and admired the military. Even as a kid, my favorite playtime activity was placing my toy soldiers in battle array. I remember mother would buy me two or three soldiers at a time, every time we went to the Kress Store in Baton Rouge. They were probably about 10 or 15 cents each.
If I played with them outside, I’d dig little trenches in the dirt to provide defensive cover for them. If I played indoors, Mother would often cut off the greenery of some vegetables and I’d use it to simulate jungles. Remember, this was very shortly after World War II and our men had fought many of the Pacific battles in jungles.
Stupidly, I have none of those toy soldiers today. They’d probably be valuable, but that’s not why I wish I had them.
As I got older, I made lots of plastic model war planes and war ships. All of those are gone too.
Even today, I collect miniature soldiers (they’re definitely not toys) that represent fighting men from the Middle Ages to the present. My book shelves groan under the weight of my military histories. My first military history book was “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo,” the story of the 1942 Doolittle Raid on Japan, which I read when I was about 13. I no longer have that either.
Although I enjoyed my journalism career, I often wish I’d gotten a PhD in history and taught military history at either Annapolis or West Point. What an honor that would have been.
But that didn’t happen, obviously. I’m not sure how to end this column, except to remind you that the next time you see someone in the uniform of our Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines or Coast Guard, to please tell them thanks. And I thank all of you reading this who took the oath to defend our country — whether you got shot at or not.