Community Forum: Don’t thank me for my service

By Charles Rasmussen

Veterans Day is coming up and once again I expect to be slathered with gratitude by those who think that all of us vets need and desire to be thanked for our service. Some do. Some don’t. I am one of the latter.

No, it’s not because I am humble or selfless or feel like I don’t deserve it. I don’t have a noble reason for shunning this particular gratitude. I simply don’t want it. For me it is a meaningless platitude. My service (and I did four excruciatingly long and costly years of it, dutifully and honorably) took place between the years 1966 and 1970. You may recall that there was a war going on, a particularly nasty one. I did not feel a strong desire to participate. But I did. And I don’t wish to be thanked for it.

Having just finished growing up in a small Oregon Coast backwater community, my eighteenth year of life was spent living freely and happily. It was a wonderful year of girls, fast cars, live music and beer, lot’s of beer. I liked beer. I still like beer. However, I was not quite as up to speed on US foreign policy as I should have been. Of course I’d heard about the Tonkin Gulf incident and LBJ opening the floodgates on Vietnam and all of that. But I didn’t really feel like it affected me all that much. Yes, I was aware of the draft and I did keep in close touch with the local draft board office which was run by a woman named Helen Wade. All of us draft-age boys made frequent visits to her office to check-up on our status. We called it “going to hell and Wade.”

Thinking I could dance around the issue until Uncle Sam got close enough to nab me, I pretty much went about my carefree life that first brief year out of high school, despite the Sword of Damocles hanging over my head. Well, the selective service operates a lot like musical chairs. When the music stopped and you didn’t have a place to sit it out, you got selected. That’s what happened to me. I got selected for service.

A couple of options were available: prison or exile. Not real choices, are they? So, I desperately went about looking for a way to avoid the hell hole, death-trap known as “Army Infantry in Vietnam” and ultimately I managed to secure a four year enlistment in the regular United States Navy, far away from the God-forsaken rice paddies of Vietnam. Or so I thought. The Vietnam War (rather, the American War in Vietnam) was like a black hole. It sucked everything in. I inevitably got sucked into it for almost two years. It sucked and it sucked and it still sucks. It sucked even more for the Vietnamese. But somehow they have managed to forgive us for making life suck so “Number 10” bad for them for so many years. We should thank them for that.

The vast majority of men who served in Vietnam were conscripted and forced to be there. That’s not so much service as it is forced labor. The vast majority of men who served there would have preferred being anywhere else in the world. In fact, “the world” is what we all called any place other than Vietnam. The vast majority of men who served there came back angry, bitter, cynical and broken in some way. Most of us despised the war far more than any of those at home marching against it. We viewed anyone in Vietnam who was proud to be there as insane. It seemed like those at home protesting the war were the only ones who wanted us home, besides the Vietnamese, of course.

We were not the good guys in Vietnam. That is a fact. Whether or not we are the good guys in the Middle East is debatable. If you want to thank the new “all volunteer” folks who fight our current perpetual wars of opportunity, go right ahead. They probably appreciate it.

As for me, whenever someone thanks me for my service, I usually say, “You can’t thank a slave for serving his master.” If that doesn’t do it, I have another reply that always works.

By the way. The women who served in Vietnam deserve immense thanks and endless gratitude…Every one of them volunteered, not to fight and kill people, but to help save lives and lift morale. Most of them were medical personnel and Red Cross and USO. We called the USO women, “Donut Dollies.” They never brought us donuts when they came to visit, but they were wonderful. They treated us like brothers. Bless their hearts. I wish every one of them a very happy Veterans Day. They deserve it.

Charles Rasmussen is an artist who has lived in Bass Harbor since 2004.

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