November 11th, 2008


At the Eleventh Hour on the Eleventh Day in the Eleventh Month

It is called Veterans Day in the United States. Once, it was called Armistice Day to commemorate the time, date, and month that marked cessation of the Great War, the War to End Wars. I almost said, marked cessation of hostilities, but history proved that comment to be a false one. Hostilities didn't cease, they only changed form, and led 21 years later to more open war, which caused a new name for the Great War to be coined.

It is also called Remembrance Day in many places. Poppies are used to mark the day, inspired by one of the greatest pieces of poetry written, a bit of healing art: In Flanders Fields by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD (1872-1918), Canadian Army. He'd been treating soldiers wounded in the Second Battle of Ypres and learned of the death of his friend in that battle. He died in January of 1918, of pneumonia (many, many more military personnel die of disease than do of their wounds or injuries; think about that some time when you look at the statistics of 'Killed in Action'). I've quoted that poem here in years previous. A friend quotes it today over at her place.

On this day, I Remember.

Yesterday I heard several someones speak: someone who survived a war, someone who survived another war, someone who served but never in a war. One of them spoke about their service as providing a defining moment to their lives, focusing on service and putting the public good before self.

Yes, it did that for me too.

There are two specific defining moments for me during that service. The first came on the day I reported aboard Hospital Corps A School, Great Lakes, Illinois. On the Quarterdeck, across from the Officer of the Day's Office (ashore, the Quarterdeck is always the place one reports aboard or is detached from duty in the Navy), hung on the wall framed 8x10 photographs. Three files high and 17 ranks deep, you do the math, these are all Hospital Corpsman who received the Congressional Medal of Honour. The supreme award for valour in the U.S. Military (Civilians receive a different award). I read the captions while waiting for orders to be processed, and repeatedly saw: Posthumous. Posthumous. Posthumous.

I'd say my recollection is around 95% of those Medal recipients, actually went to their families.

Now this is a defining moment in my life but it's actually only half of that defining moment. Two years later, at my duty station Naval Regional Medical Center, Orlando, Florida, I served with a Hospitalman Chief. Chief was a pretty quiet guy, usually, despite defining himself as a redneck (he took a part-time job as a security guard at a self-storage warehouse so he could 'work off my redneck tendancies'). Chief also did three tours in Vietnam, the first two with the Marines, and the third as a SEAL. Chief's left breast on his uniform shirts and coats had seven rows three wide of ribbons, plus one. One, centered, top row. Pale blue ground, white stars.

The Medal.

Chief, like I said, usually kept quiet and went about business. Oh, he could be a lot of fun to be with around times like the Hospital Corps Birthday and other big events, he wasn't a stick in the mud. I just never heard him raise his voice, and only twice ever saw him get any kind of riled. Two of my favourite memories of Chief involved Morning Muster. One of them, after Roll Call, he looked us over.

'I've been finding empty beer cans in the trash when I come in mornings. Not a lot, but they're there. You all know the regulations, but I need to remind you. Written Regulation: There is no drinking on duty. Unwritten Regulation: So empty the trash before Chief gets here.'

The other Morning Muster memory is one of the two times I saw Chief riled. Right after Plan of the Day was announced, he turned to a Hospitalman (E-3 pay grade, so like only the third pay grade up from the bottom), brand new aboard and fresh out of A School at the Lakes and said, 'Make coffe.'


Chief turned back to this HM and looked at him, and the whole compartment got very quiet. 'What was that?' Chief asked.


'I gave you an order,' Chief said, still in that so quiet voice he always used.

'I don't drink coffee. I won't make coffee.' That proverbial pin-drop? They'd of heard it in the CO's office across the Hospital campus.

Chief turned to another fellow, told him to make coffee, then walked into the office. Now, this particular job Chief and I shared the office, so I followed him in and got to work. Chief sat down at his desk and dialed his phone; I recognised it as a WATTS number and even enough of it (dial phones those days, eh?) that he'd called someone in DC. The brief conversation that followed made it clear to me he spoke with a personal friend, and asked for a favour for someone who really, truly needed the experience.

And that very afternoon, right after Noon Chow, in fact, HM WontMakeCoffee got called to the Personnel office, where he received orders to Field Medical School, Camp Lejune, North Carolina.

The other time I ever saw Chief riled was around May but not Memorial Weekend. We'd just gone through a Change of Command ceremony, with all of us turning out in Full Dress Blues, so Chief didn't have that little ribbon on his chest but the somewhat bigger one around his neck, the one with the actual Medal on it. After the ceremony, back on SPO Quarters, somebody in the lounge asked, 'Hey, Chief, how'd you win the Medal?'

The whole room turned. Chief stood there, shaking his head. 'PO3, you stupid, brainless excuse for a warthog, nobody wins the Medal. You might, maybe, just possibly if you do everything right when it gets so unfriendly ugly that even your great granddaddy warthog would hide, through an outside chance be awarded the Medal. Odds are you won't be there to see your mother be handed the box, though.'

And he went to his quarters.

Come to think of it, I don't recall Chief ever using an obscenity, either.

Chief would tell you, if you waited for him to talk about it, that he wasn't a hero. He didn't feel he deserved that Medal, he didn't feel it belonged to him. He wore it for every other man who was with him that time that didn't come home, the real heroes according to Chief. I know this, because he did.

Today, at the Eleventh Hour on the Eleventh Day in the Eleventh Month, I Remember. I Remember Chief's shipmates, and my own, and my brothers and uncles, who didn't come home.