Altus Air Force Base, Altus, Okla.
Thirty-five years ago.
A fuming, crimson-faced colonel stands spewing raw hatred, chewing me out, and telling me I am the sorriest sack of crap he's ever encountered as he discharges me from the U.S. Air Force. To his mind I am a disgrace to the U.S. military, not to mention God, honor and country. Had he a sidearm nearby, I believe the colonel would have executed me right on the spot.
My sin? Being a peace-loving, left-leaning, "We Shall Overcome"-chanting, Vietnam War-hating child of the '60s. Plus, weeks before, I had publicly protested the war in Vietnam. As a result, I lost my top-secret clearance. Lost my assignment to Trabzon, Turkey. Lost my chance to sit remotely (and safely) on a mountaintop for 15 months and intercept Russian radio transmissions -- this while others went to Nam.
Now, three and a half decades later, I have thought and rethought my military career. And I have come to a conclusion: That smoking-hot colonel was dead right about me.
It's not that I now believe Vietnam was a just and proper war -- I'm too much a child of the '60s to ever consider that. But as I absorb the daily news about young American men and women currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, I feel more and more proud of them and more and more ashamed of myself. For when called to serve my country, I declined.
In 1967 I did enlist in the Air Force rather than run to Canada, and I did complete basic training before moving into a top-secret area of Air Force Security Service. But as for my pledge to serve and defend my country "so help me God" -- that I did not honor.
What I chose, instead, was to protest the war and try my damnedest to get out. At the time I claimed the high ground, Vietnam was immoral, illegal, beyond contempt for know-it-all college kids such as myself. Now I know better.
I failed my country then because I chose to; because I wanted to selfishly begin my life; because I couldn't be bothered by my Uncle Sam's needs; because I was just too damned self-centered to put another hour (and perhaps my life) on the line for the Stars and Stripes.
I have never talked about this with other Vietnam-era contemporaries. I have never asked them if they thought the war would have lasted longer had people like me not protested. Would more American troops have died? Would anything since Vietnam have actually turned out differently? Who knows?
But what I do know is this country has afforded me a better life than I could have ever imagined 35 years ago. I have a wonderful family, a career others envy, a comfortable income, and possessions and opportunities far beyond anything I deserve.
I used to ponder all this a couple times a year, mostly on Memorial and Veterans days. Now I brood about it every day (every night, actually, when I say my prayers). That's when I ask God to bless all those who have been willing, and all those who are currently willing, to serve their country and help guarantee this life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness I enjoy -- the exact thing I was not willing to do when it was my turn.
And there's more. These days when I see young men and women in uniform, I stand in awe of them, for they are willing to do something I would not or could not do. I recognize they grasp a sense of duty and honor that I did not. And I am humbled.