Friday, December 4, 2009

Local News

Despite the cool, spring temperatures, sweat soaked through Army Tech Sergeant Van Barfoot’s uniform as he ran. It was the last thing on his mind as he gasped for oxygen. Getting shot to pieces was more pressing – running ever further from his platoon behind him. They remained trapped in the open fields near Carano, Italy, and pinned under heavy German fire. Unable to move, they faced certain death if they attempted to advance or even retreat. In front of him, several German machine gun bunkers continued to pour concentrated fire into his comrades. He alone, keeping to the left flank of their position, remained unnoticed.

As he neared the Germans, he dove to the ground, prayed he would remain unseen, and dragged himself forward on his stomach. The buckle of his web belt raked in the dirt, clinging to his gear and increasing the resistance as he crawled. His heart raced. In front of him, the German machine gun nests continued to fire on his platoon behind him. Wriggling closer, he pulled out a grenade, ripped off the pin, and heaved the device into the first machine gun nest he saw. He hit it directly – killing two Germans and wounding three. The firing stopped – at least from that position.

He approached it cautiously, observing the battered remains of the guns and the soldiers manning it. None of them posed any further threat. Further down the line the firing continued, and he kept moving towards it. Having essentially infiltrated the enemy defenses, Barfoot crawled close to the next machine gun emplacement and opened fire with his Thompson, killing two Germans instantly.

The three remaining, recognizing their situation, threw up their hands in surrender immediately. Nearby, German soldiers in another position observed the fates of their comrades and also surrendered to Barfoot. He disarmed them, leaving the prisoners for a squad of his brothers approaching behind him. Still operating on a combination of adrenalin and desperation, he continued moving down the line.

In short order, he had captured seventeen Germans, effectively broken the assault’s stalemate, and his men soon moved into the positions he had singlehandedly overrun. It looked for a moment that Barfoot could rest. They were relatively safe now. Yet they would receive no respite. In the distance, the firing intensified. The Germans were launching a fierce counterassault against them. And, they were using tanks.

As three Mark VI tanks rumbled towards them, Barfoot crawled out of his position, exposed himself directly to their fire, and launched a bazooka at the lead tank 75 meters away. His rocket hit it in the tread, causing a mobility kill. The brazen destruction of their lead caused the other two tanks to immediately turn off to the flanks. Sprinting towards the now-disabled tank, Barfoot killed three tankers as they scrambled from the hatch, and continued deeper into the German lines. When he reached a recently-abandoned German field piece, he rammed a demolition charge in its breech and destroyed it. The immediate threats eliminated and now utterly exhausted, he began retreating to his platoon’s position behind him. He was probably contemplating how many times over he should have been killed that day.

As he moved, he came upon two seriously-wounded US Soldiers and, despite his own weariness, helped them both to their feet and assisted them a full 1,700 meters back to a position of safety before rejoining his own platoon. For his valorous efforts on that day, May 23rd 1944, Barfoot was later awarded the nation’s highest military citation; the Medal of Honor. (Another Soldier, 2nd Lt Thomas Fowler, was also awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions that day, but was killed 11 days later and received the citation posthumously.)

Decades later, by this time a field-grade officer, and having fought honorably in World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, Van Barfoot retired from the United States Army a highly decorated Soldier. Now 90 years old, he lives in Henrico County, Virginia, about 45 miles from my home. Every morning, he solemnly raises the colors on the flagpole in his front yard, and at sunset lowers and folds them perfectly. He has done this for as long as he has lived at that residence.

Yesterday (December 2nd, 2009), the Coates & Davenport lawfirm of Richmond, Virginia (representing the Sussex Square Homeowners Association) issued him a five-paragraph letter stating that he must remove the flagpole by 5PM on Friday or face “legal action being brought to enforce the Covenants and Restrictions against you.” According to the homeowners association, the flagpole was erected despite their denial of his request to their board. The letter also states that he will be held liable for all legal fees the homeowners association incurs to enforce the matter. According to Barfoot’s daughter, however, there is no provision in the association’s rules that expressly forbids flagpoles. Instead, in July they determined it to be forbidden on aesthetic grounds and ordered him remove it. He ignored them.

Evidently, the Colors of the United States of America are an eyesore to the community.

If there is such a thing as a class of citizen who has earned the right to do virtually whatever he pleases, it is a Medal of Honor recipient – one whose actions have changed the course of battles, saved countless lives, and brought a quicker end to bloodshed. More than simply being held in high esteem, bearers of this sacred award must be saluted by all uniformed members of the armed services, regardless of their rank. Even Admiral Mike Mullen, current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, must salute this man. Additionally, in a room full of officers, all enlisted men will salute him, the wearer of the Medal of Honor, before rendering respects to any other. It is a well-earned privilege and honor, there are less than 200 of them living today. Under federal law, the award cannot be imitated or privately sold. The penalty: prison.

Yet Barfoot apparently is not permitted to post the colors on his own property on account of it being an eyesore. Though this situation only came to a head one day ago, it has already gained national media attention depicting an overbearing homeowners association making a stand in entirely the wrong places. Barfoot’s daughter, appropriately, alerted the media to the situation, who have made the public aware of a hero’s wrongful treatment. No doubt, the media will also cover the outcome tomorrow, when Barfoot refuses to remove his flagpole.

I am aware that we live in an age where it is “trendy” to take a stand for something. I am also aware that, in a time when being pro-military and patriotic is vocally encouraged, daring to behave differently is trendy, too. Furthermore, I am fully aware that nobody likes to be told “no,” especially when they considered themselves in a position of authority. It is also “trendy” to bring legal action against anybody who insults you. What I was unaware of, however, is that it is apparently trendy to be an absolute asshole.

*Related Article
*Historical Information

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

A Few Differences

*Retold with permission.

We’ve talked long about how veterans are different from everybody else. Sometimes it’s voiced as complaints about how we’ll never be understood beyond a certain degree, yet other times it’s announced with pride and pleasure that we aren’t as vulnerable to stupid trivialities. But near as I can tell, little has been done to put these differences to words, besides from a haughty “I’m better than you because I’m a veteran” or a fatalistic “I’m different and you’re never going to get it.” Neither explains much of anything. There are differences, though, and some of them are significant.

For starters, we have developed intolerance to injustice. We see something, recognize it’s wrong, and then we grow indignant. As men and women who are trained to lead, to problem-solve and create order from chaos, we will make every effort to right a wrong. If there is a fight, we will pick a side and end it, or we will break it up and throw the offenders out the door. We will NOT be found huddled in the corner and meekly praying that nobody throws something our direction.

If somebody says or does something inappropriate to our wives, mothers, sisters, girlfriends, or any sort of loved one, we will take immediate action to make sure the person knows what they said was wrong – and that it has consequences. Diplomacy was terminated when they acted as they did, and we graduate to the next measure: apologize and leave, or get hurt and wish you’d apologized – or just not opened your mouth at all. This isn’t unchecked anger, it’s refusal to be a coward.

If we arrive upon the scene of a car accident, we will not keep driving and “just hope that everybody’s okay.” Instead, we will help you, summon emergency services, try to calm you down, tell jokes, mop blood, and be otherwise generally helpful until somebody arrives to take our place. We’ve seen broken bodies before, and we’ve done what we can to help them. Most of them were friends, and some didn’t make it home. Later on, we’ll think about them, one name at a time, and wish we’d been able to help them more. Not one of us will confidently say that we have done enough.

Innately and vehemently, we all love our country. We know how others elsewhere are forced to live, and we’re thankful that we, our families, and friends don’t have to live like that also. Many of you may be blithely unaware of current events and not particularly interested in them, but we follow them closely. We know where our friends are, and we pray fervently for their return. We are quickly angered when somebody announces that they’re embarrassed to be an American. We strongly encourage you to live elsewhere and see how much you like it. Sadly, one is unaware of one’s rights until they’ve been painfully revoked.

If somebody asks us to take down the flags hanging on our porches, we will invest in flag poles and hang them higher. Few more than us have purchased the right to demonstrate our patriotism, and your lack of it encourages us to do it even more. We took an oath to the Constitution, and nowhere in there does it mention anything about sensitivity to lowering our colors because somebody finds it offensive. No, so long as our attempts at self-determination do not interfere or encroach on yours, we can do as we please. If it’s a really big problem for you, move elsewhere.

When the National Anthem plays, we will be standing solemnly, attentively, and place our hands across our chests. Some of us will salute. You may be assured that we will say something if you do not show any respect. That song, that annoying little ditty that delays the start of every sporting event, is a national hymn, and for a pivotal time in our lives we stood at attention and saluted whenever it was played. Failing to do so means you respect neither your country, those who have served it, or yourself. We will help you rediscover that sentiment, or simply embarrass you in public.

I will quickly admit that not all of our differences are good ones. Some are character problems we should all work on, and many of us are. We admit imperfection, as should all people.

We have lost all patience for standing in lines. Years of waiting long hours for gear we didn’t need, shots we didn’t want, or to go places we didn’t want to see have done this to us. We get irritated, and occasionally say rude things. We should work on it. We’ve observed and endured the very epitome of inefficiency and it pains us to see any more of it. Sorry.

We are occasionally too loud in public places, causing discomfort for the rest of our party and potentially displeasure for all those around us. Part of it may be the incorrect supposition that what we have to say bears more weight than others, but it’s mostly an inability to hear very well. Various explosions, machine guns, and roadside bombs have left almost every one of us with some form of hearing impairment. For a few, we just speak more quietly – awkwardly so.

We are not always very comfortable in loud, crowded places. We are trained to seize control of situations and make the best of them, but with so many people and so much noise, there is little we can do. We feel somewhat helpless, preferring to hug the perimeter, or the wall, or a darkened, quieter corner. We can more easily control our little corners. We may not be interested in dancing, either, because people may be watching and we don’t desire the attention. Once again, sorry.

We will yell loudly to get our points across, failing at times to remember that our audience isn’t a lot of idiot subordinates who can’t seem to go one weekend without getting in trouble. We forget that “normal” people always begin by discussing things amicably, not set upon each other with rabid spit-slinging obscenities. The further we move from our service, however, the less we will do this. Just give us some time. Nobody’s perfect, and we know we aren’t.

Sometimes we refuse to talk to you on the assumption that you will never understand what we’re trying to say. We appear silent, or at least painfully reserved, but there’s a reason. Strange as it may sound, we’re truly fearful that what we say will further distance us from you, and we don’t want to do that. We don’t want you to fear us, or hate us, or confuse us with criminals, because we are nothing of the sort. Simply put, we have an understanding of violence.

If, for some terrible reason, somebody runs into a building and starts shooting at people or otherwise attacking them, you will not find us cowering behind furniture frantically punching on our cell phones to dial the police. We will be running towards the enemy. We are trained to assault through the objective, and we will resort to that training as best we can. If we are armed, we will shoot. If we are not, we will FIND a weapon. Somehow, some way, we will kill the aggressor. Later, our hands will shake and we’ll get incredibly thirsty, and we’ll think back to the other times we’ve been attacked and how many of our friends we lost. Without warning, we will be overcome with emotions we long ago tucked into a secluded room and barricaded. Some of us will puke.

There is a high probability that how we act may kill us, but we have identified something far worse than dying. It’s living with regret. For as long as we draw breath, regardless of if we are still in the military or not, we remain keepers, stewards, watchers, and protectors, porters, pall bearers and carriers of a burden. Our actions may be fatal, but they are also right and we’re not going to stop thinking that way. We will gladly use violence to prevent further violence against the innocent. We, on the other hand, are not innocent, and are still combatants. And we’re peacemakers.

Finally, we do not tolerate accusations – particularly when we’re accused of being lazy, ungrateful, ignorant, or members of a generation of losers. When you tell us we don’t know the meaning of work or sacrifice, we will answer you, some quietly and some quite loudly. I, personally, will answer you quietly.

I will reach into my wallet and pull out my lifetime membership card to the Disabled American Veterans, and then I will tell you this: "I can't remember all the friends I lost, or the number of missions I've run, or the years I've spent serving a nation which I am mostly convinced didn’t desire my service. But despite what you may think, and for as long as my body holds out, if they call me again, I will answer."

We ARE different, and these are some of the reasons why. If you look for us, you’ll see us. We may not stand out particularly, but we stand up a little straighter, and perhaps smile a little less, or start limping a little younger than we should. We’re proud of what we did, and proud of most of our differences. This nation needs keepers, and we’re glad to do it. We can’t help it, either; it’s just right.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved