Thought For Today

I am so glad that you have found this site and I hope you will find encouragement and joy as you read through my thoughts on God, family and life.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Trying To Be An Honorable Soldier, Part II

For myself, having many questions about the war and life in general, when first entering the Army haunted me day and night.  Like many servicemen, I could see the numerous challanges that young men around me were facing everyday.  For me though, my questions and struggles were very small in comparison to many others.  For instance, one man in my unit had broken fingers that were not set.  He struggled to perform elementary functions each day.  Not only did he have this handicap against him, he was married and had a child back home.  The money the service was paying him was not enough for his wife and child to live on.  He could have gotten a “Hardship Discharge”, but he chose to stick it out and hope for the best.  On top of this, I found him sleep walking one night while I was pulling fire watch duty.  This handicap alone would have allowed him to get a discharge.  When offered to him, he chose instead to forgo a discharge because he wanted to do his duty.  The sergeant followed through with his wishes and said nothing.  This young man wanted to do his part in serving his country.  I imagine that if given the chance, perhaps some might have wanted to get back home with a medical discharge, that is, back to a “sane world” as a few put it. 

Another man was Hispanic; he spoke little English and struggled to fit in with the group.  On top of the language barrier, he was overweight, and he found it hard to complete the arduous physical tasks each day.  Since he spoke little English, it was difficult for him to make friends and get the needed moral support.  In time we became good friends, his English improved over time, and I helped him (and myself) by reading the Bible to him by flashlight each night.  We were both searching for God in this place of challenges and trials.  I am reminded of the old adage, “There are no atheists in foxholes!”  Many of the men like myself were searching for the meaning of life, especially now that the end of our young existence might be soon over, and eternity seeming closer than ever. 

We were all very frightened about the prospects of an uncertain future.  One day while shooting in a foxhole, one man next to me said that he left his earplugs back at the barracks.  He asked me if I had extras, and I told him that I hadn’t any.  I knew that if he continued to shoot his rifle that day, he would be deaf by the end of our training in the evening.  We were all too afraid to let our Drill Instructor know of such an unforgivable offense.  This might seem silly to any person who had not been in this position, but at the time, our personal freedoms did not exist.  Each drill instructor had cart blanch over our lives.  He could do to us anything he deemed necessary to get the job done.  Most D.I.s were very good, while a select few enjoyed the misery they could inflict on some unfortunate guy.  Not seeing anything else to do, I loaned him one of my earplugs that day, now we both bare the marks of hearing loss.  Was it necessary, it is hard to say.  Was it foolish to do what I did, perhaps, perhaps not.  One thing we knew as soldiers though, we took care of each other, no matter what the cost.  These friendships, though short were bonded in the crucible of fire, and would leave marks on our souls that would shape us for the rest of our lives.  What was done that day was repeated many times over by others, and sometimes with a much greater degree, and they were done all for the sake of love and respect for the other soldier. 

In the midst of these trials, a faith was forming within myself, and that of others in my unit as well.  We began to realize that life was short, and not permanent as many our age and in our generation thought.   I found no answers to Vietnam being a just war, or least while being in the service.  What I did find though was that I was becoming a man that I could respect, and most of all, like. 

My orders did eventually come, they told me that I must go to Vietnam.  In the interim, I was given 10 days leave time.  I headed home and I found that I had changed far more than I had realized.  My old friends did not recognize me as before, and I too saw life somehow differently.  I struggled with the idea that I might never see my home again, and so I found myself walking the streets of my hometown, absorbing every site and sound that I could gather.  One night while sitting in my childhood woods overlooking Jackson, I prayed that if God wanted me to go to Vietnam, I would go.  If He gave me the choice though, I wanted to go elsewhere.  But, if Vietnam was where he desired for me to be, then I asked that if death was to be my end, it would arrive while helping others, and not trying to kill to do so.  A little time later I realized that God did give me a choice.  It came about by a mix up in my orders.  Just as my jet was boarding personnel, a sergeant asked me if I wanted to go to Vietnam, or head to another base overseas in Europe.  Later, I remembered that God gave me this choice I had asked for, and I chose Europe.  Did I escape danger?  For the most part, I had to say yes.  But one day it did visit our base of location.  During my tour of duty, Soviet supplied terrorists were shooting and bombing American installations all over Germany.  My unit was not untouched by their reign of terror.

I found myself in full combat gear one day, hopping on to a public trolley car in which I shared the space with many German civilians, all who were staring at me with fear.  When hearing the explosions going off, I along with several other soldiers, volunteered to head to the site of the bombings across town and help in whatever way we could.  Others soldiers were driving, catching rides on passing military trucks in whatever means to get to the bombsites.  When arriving, I realized one of the buildings in which I worked during the day, was hit by a bomb.  The other bomb blew up the officer’s club behind my work building.  These buildings were previously Eisenhower’s headquarters shortly after World War II.  Now it was the headquarters to several central commands, including the one I worked for, Fifth Corps.  When arriving at the site, I was sent to guard the area of the officer’s club, and to keep people safe and away from the area of destruction.  As I stood there, behind me was where an American officer was killed, he was heading home to the States, and his family was standing nearby.  Crowds were quickly gathering, and I wondered if another blast would go off taking more people with it.  The loss of life that day was limited to several Army personnel, but horrible in the toll of suffering for the families missing their fathers, husbands and sons.  The job I did was just one small part during that night, and much less dangerous than those in my unit who volunteered in helping with the devastation. 

The suffering and toll of war in Vietnam was multiplied many times over for the men and women there, that is in what they had to endure and live through.  I realized Vietnam was fought in a time when many back home saw little purpose to the amount of sacrifice given towards its end.  Soldiers returning home did not receive the praise and respect that their fathers had gotten when coming home from World War II.  But one thing I realized was that it is not a soldier’s place to question the righteousness of war; it is to do his duty and to protect life, even at the expense of his own.   Few of us will understand the actual cost placed on a soldier who fought in war such as those who went to Vietnam.  I have seen a man eaten up inside while sharing what he did in the war there.  Within a short time, he had passed away leaving behind two children, a wonderful wife, and a budding business.  He passed away at 38, way before his time.  The toll of war and the life of a soldier does not leave with his discharge papers, it follows him all his life.  The cost of freedom is known no less than by those that have offered the ultimate sacrifice, themselves.

Honor our soldiers when you see them, and thank them for their sacrifice.  In Washington D.C. there is engraved on the Korean War Memorial, “Freedom Is Not Free!”  No one knows this more than a soldier.   Jesus told his disciples this, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for his friends.”  Honor those family members and friends this day whose son or daughter paid the ultimate sacrifice, a sacrifice that we might live free.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Trying To Be An Honorable Soldier Part I

With Memorial Day soon arriving, my thoughts go back many years now to the time when I volunteered to go into the Army out of high school.  I was raised in a family that encouraged patriotism to our country, and it seemed a good thing to do, to fight for our country that is.  My father and uncle fought in World War II and they felt that it was important to support our country in a time of need.  The year was 1970 and I was heading into the Army, away from my little sleepy town of Jackson, Minnesota. 

With the advent of TV and radio, small towns such as Jackson were not immune to the news from the outside world.  Vietnam was now raging on for about 5 years and people were being touched in our small community by the loss of individual lives in the war.  We could feel the tension in our school as former upper classmates were being listed as “Killed in Action” over in Vietnam.  We as young students didn’t really understand all the politics of the war, and we couldn’t have understood what it meant for the families that lost a son in this faraway land. 

When I got to basic training at Fort Lewis, Washington, I was put in a unit of all volunteers like myself, which is with one exception, a young man who was going back into the National Guard in his hometown.  Many of us were happy to serve in the military, but as reports of more deaths were coming back to us, the thoughts lingered in our minds if we would soon be one of them.  

Our drill sergeant was a man who had three tours of duty in Vietnam, and he had convinced each of us that we were heading overseas to Vietnam, and that we had “better learn our “stuff” or we would become another casualty.   Reality of what was going on was hitting each of us, and we took our training seriously.  Given little sleep each day, and sloshing through rain and snow, we were as a unit wearing down very quickly.  I remember our D.I.  (Drill Instructor) telling us that he was going to make it so tough on us that Vietnam would seem easy.  In retrospect, he was trying to save our lives in the event of being sent to war.  Each day we got back to our barracks wet and cold.  Spinal meningitis was traveling very rapidly through the units, so we had to have our barrack’s windows open every night, so the time that we got any sleep was slim at best.  Many of us were getting sick and having to be shipped to the hospital, some having pneumonia.

Moral was getting lower each day while the demands for completing our tasks seemed to increase.  Some were reaching the breaking point and I could see it by the looks on their faces.  One man from Chicago who grew up on the South side, was one such individual.  He was talking about ending it all by taking his life.  I was concerned, so I requested to see the First Sergeant.  Unfortunately nothing was done and my friend got a hold of a bottle of pills, and he took them.  I ran to the sergeant in charge and my friend was rushed to the hospital.  A couple of days later he was sent back and was talking again about ending his life once more.  I snuck out of our battalion area that night, knowing that it was forbidden to do so, but I was desperate and I was looking for the unit chaplain in a desperate attempt to find help for my friend.  I found the chapel, but it was empty and closed down for the night.  I then pleaded with the First Sergeant again, and again nothing was done.  My friend attempted another suicide and this time he almost completed his task.  He just made it, and again was later sent back to our unit with nothing being done.  To make matters worse, we were told that in the battalion close to ours that a man emptied his weapon into his drill sergeant.   This only drew our unit further down.  For myself, I was getting sick with a bad cough and my arches had finally collapsed one evening.  I took my wet boots off one night and found that I couldn’t walk.  I tried to go down a set of steps, but found myself falling down the flight with no support in my feet.  Something was torn loose in my ankles and I knew that I needed to see a doctor.  I went the next day and he told me to wear my dress shoes instead of my wet boots.  That obviously would not work since the rain made the ground a wet goo of mud and ice that would go over my socks.  The problem started when we had to polish our boots each night so that didn’t give the leather time to dry.  This in the end, it left our boots useless to support our weight, and so consequently, my arches collapsed, offering no support for my feet.  I was determined not to get behind by going to sick calls so I grinned and bore it.  I found it harder though to carry my 40-pound pack and rifle since my feet were struggling to support the extra weight.  It is strange what a person can do though when confronted with unusual challenges.

A few days later, we had our force march into the mountains towards the end of our training, that was the most difficult time of basic.  We transitioned from rain to snow in a matter of hours, and that change made it difficult since the paths were full of round rocks covered in snow, which made it very slippery to navigate.  The medics followed us and picked up those that could not make it.  I was determined that this would not be my day to collapse.  I compelled myself to climb, stumble and forced myself each step until we reached our destination.  When finally stopping, it was so dark that none of us could see our hand in front of our faces; we had to feel our tent halves to snap them up.  We undressed in the sleeping bag all the while leaving our clothes in the bag with us to keep them warm.  If we left our clothes on, we would have frozen due to the fact that our own clothes would have insulated our body heat and kept it from reaching the sleeping bag.  After we got into our bags, our D.I. told us to pack up, we heading another 8 miles up the mountain.  We ended up reaching the site in the middle of the night, each of us pounding tent stakes into the snow and ice, since we couldn’t find any earth beneath us. 

Many things happened to each of us in basic that would change our lives forever.  My friend for instance, who attempted in taking his life, I was told that he became a door gunner in Vietnam.  I do not know if he survived or not.  Others were sent to other bases for further training like myself.  I will write more about that later. 

After all that, was I as patriotic as before?  Well, I had many questions to answer for myself.  For example, was this war a just one?  Why were we not winning the war since we had a better army and we had a better equipped military?  Would I be one of those men that never came home?  I just turned 19, would I live to see 20?  I was only one of many of thousands of men that were facing these same challenges.  For myself, I was not alone in my questions, but I knew one thing, each of us supported one another and looked out for the other guy.  I knew too that men were in Vietnam and they had it much worse than myself.  I wondered if anyone back home really understood what was going on, and why this war was being fought.  For myself, I knew at that point that I did not.  One thing I did know  though, I loved my country and I would be willing to die for it, but was this cause a just one?

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Our Hope!

Two days before the last snowstorm.  Abby, Will, and cousins Noah and Eric.

It seems that weather history is being made consistently here in Minnesota this year.  In our state we now have made another historical landmark by having a snowstorm that has dumped up to 17 inches of snow in various parts of the state.  We here in Winona, received about 6-7” with around 2 inches of sleet before that.  Flowers are bent over and the limbs of the budding trees moan with the weight of the snow on them.  The common joke here in Minnesota is that we hope summer comes on a weekend!  Well, it is turning out to be more of a reality than expected.  My friend Gerry Frosch said this morning at breakfast, "We have had snow now for 9 consecutive months, a little strange to say the least."  I jokingly said in facebook that we now live in the land of Narnia.  Narnia is a land in the book, "Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe" where there is perpetual winter.
Driveway after the storm.

In spite of this I see the signs of spring all around me.  Flowers are seen struggling to bloom with the green grass just now poking its head through the snow.  Migrating birds along with the ones that stay year round, are crowding now to the feeders in hope of getting food that normally nature provides this time of year.  I am reminded of a statement that a friend of mine made recently, he said that insightful people see difficult situations as opportunities for positive outcomes, rather than seeing them as  roadblocks.  These are words to live by now as life seems to change daily at every turn. 

Jesus said, “I am the truth, the light and the way.“ (John 14:6)  I know that when I get my eyes off of God’s purpose for me, then I have a tendency to look at the darker side of life.  The fact is, I find that I need to get into his word (Bible) everyday or my focus is skewed, and I loose track of his direction for my life.   When that happens, I find that my day has in many cases been wasted on futile attempts to find the peace that is often lost in material endeavors.  God has created us for specific designs and purposes, and that is only found if we stay in constant contact with him through reading his word, praying (speaking and listening), and committing our days into his hands. 

God bless you on this day my friends!