Written by Jim Roberts
Vietnam veteran Jim Roberts poses the question: “What exactly is there to be happy about in being a veteran?”
The words “Happy Veterans Day” always cause me to flinch.
I shake my head in wonder. “What exactly is there to be happy about in being a veteran?”
Todd and I have debated this “Happy Veterans Day” greeting over the years. Todd thinks it’s perfectly appropriate to say it. He knows such a phrase is inappropriate for Memorial Day and other days of remembrance, but he considers Veterans Day a celebration of veterans that should be prefaced with the word “Happy.”
I challenge Todd to answer my question: “What exactly is there to be happy about in being a veteran?”
Don’t get me wrong. I’m a proud veteran. I proudly wear a black baseball cap with my unit patch, advisory team number, Mobile Advisory Team (MAT) number, and Dong Xoai on the front along with a Combat Infantry Badge (CIB). I know it is a lot to put on a ball cap but it is important to me. And I must apologize to the Marines who, seeing the red and yellow on the MACV patch (my unit) think I am “one of them.” Red and yellow were the colors on the Vietnamese flag.
My point of view is narrow. I was on a five-man Mobile Advisory Team (MAT) co-located with a four-man District Team. Beyond helicopter insertion, extraction, and Medivac, I never worked in the field with an American unit.
Within this nine-man collection of Americans, there was one major, two captains, one lieutenant, three E-7s, one E-6 and one E-5. They represented Armor (1), Infantry (5), Medic (1), Military Intelligence (2). Seven were professional soldiers, and two were citizen soldiers with three year commitments to the Army.
Within this group of soldiers, there was no sign of bigotry or animosity. We had our disputes but they were professional in nature and we worked together in a very harmonious fashion.
Rank meant very little when it came to getting things done. The major and the captains did the same tasks that the E-6 and E-5 did. Everyone covered everyone’s back and looked out for each other.
Coming in from a mission, I would drop my pack and weapon in my quarters and go take a shower and shave a week’s beard growth.
Returning to my quarters, I would often find my weapon cleaned and gear spread out to dry. I did this for others on my team. It is just what we did.
These days are among the best of my life. I was part of a small community working together in harmony to accomplish the mission and keep each other safe. These are the good memories.
Then, there are other memories. The ones that aren’t at all good.
Whether good or bad, my experiences in the military were never what you would call “happy.” The birth of a child offered the possibility of happiness, but it was tinged with the thought that you might not return home to see and hold that child.
“Date Estimated Return from Overseas”—so-called DEROS—was tinged with sadness. Returning home meant leaving behind those soldiers who made returning home alive possible. We were heading to safety while they were still “out there.”
Jim Roberts in Dong Xoai, Vietnam, 1971 (left) and memoir of service (right).
So what is there about being a veteran that warrants happiness?
- That I was fortunate to come home without a Purple Heart or a serious case of PTSD.
- That my name is not etched on a granite wall somewhere.
- That the nation honors it veterans — where was that attitude when I returned home 52 years ago and sat alone in three rows of seats on the plane from San Francisco to Philadelphia — the other passengers having gotten up and moved to safer seats?
No, for me there is nothing about being a veteran that I can in any way call happy.
“Grateful,” yes. “Honored,” yes. But not “Happy.”
For me, those words combined with “Veterans Day” would make a better salutation than “Happy.”