By DOC HAMELS, CONSULTANT, RIPLEY, NY
I was born in the, then bustling, city of Buffalo just seven years after the conclusion of WWII and in the middle of the Korean War and Harry Truman was president. My dad had served in the Army Air force for four years in Europe during WWII. As my brother and I played around the house, he was very adamant that when we were playing with our rubber guns that we should never ever point them directly as anyone. We never had a gun or rifle in the house. I was raised to respect weapons and I suppose fear them. I do not own a weapon to this day. I guess I was raised to think that war and guns were not good things.
Sitting around watching the TV, we would watch the three Stooges making fun of Hitler. We watched the antics of Hogan’s Heroes who were holed up in a German prisoner of war camp. War didn’t seem too bad. My dad and uncle would talk about stories around the battle field but they never talked about what was happening in combat. To me it sounded like an extended trip to various parts of the world and someone else was doing the fighting. We were sheltered from the truth. The service men and women who returned from the theaters in Europe and the Pacific quietly went about living their lives. The USA was strong and the oppressor of evil.
Then, when I was a teenager there was this “conflict” in Vietnam starting. In school we learned about where the two countries, North and South Vietnam, were on a map and also something called “communism”. It was all very far away. Little by little I would hear about this festering problem and see things on TV. It was getting more serious. My cousin went to Vietnam and I remember he had written to my aunt telling her about how the bullets were whizzing overhead and that he was pretty scared at times. Now I began to think this all sounds very dangerous. No one ever died in Hogan’s Heroes.
On August 5, 1971, I was on an extended family trip in New England and frantically trying to find out what my draft number was. Of all the numbers, mine was the only one not published in the local newspaper. This couldn’t be a good omen. When we got home I learned that I was #72. I was told that they were drafting everyone up to #100. The Vietnam conflict had really begun to heat up and I was destined to be drafted. I was in college and waited to hear from my draft board when it would be my time to do my duty and serve my country. I figured on enlisting in the Air Force. If it was good for my dad, it was good enough for me. More and more horrible scenes were appearing on TV and in the newspapers. Our country was beginning to divide on the issue between doves and war hawks. It was so easy to look at this war as a pretty horrific experience for everyone involved. Soldiers were considered scoundrels, and the peace makers were considered extremists. It was a very emotionally confusing time. I never got the letter to serve.
1972: Enter into the media the antic filled TV series called M.A.S.H. It slowly pulled us into the daily lives of the Korean War and little by little we learned through their weekly adventures about the things our armed forces had to do to survive…to cope…to keep alive…to maintain their sanity. The blood shed was in full view. While at the same time, through this media, Vietnam was becoming all too real for me in my safe cozy world.
Eventually this “conflict” came to an end and the world seemed a little calmer. We all went about our lives, some getting jobs and starting families, others doing the same thing but quietly dealing with the horrors of war simmering just below the surface of their lives. This often resulted in broken marriages, substance abuse, suicide or depression. This was true of veterans of WWII and Korea but again no one talked about it.
Meanwhile, new issues arose. Then 9/11. By then my children were mostly grown and my oldest son, Scott was in the Army. My stomach began to churn all over again. So many mixed feelings. He has proudly served our country three times in Iraq and has bounced around the world doing what he is trained to do.
I have slowly sifted through the stories, the media and the personal stories that I have heard about war. This is what I have learned:
These brave souls knowingly agree to put themselves in harm’s way for a nobler purpose beyond themselves.
They have a dedicated commitment to serve their country’s leadership without question or hesitation.
They are proud of what they do and have achieved.
They are willing to forego their own lives for another.
I believe that 99.9% of the people of the world are good. I have traveled around parts of the world and the day-to-day worker, mom and dad, student, grandparent share many if not all of the same values that we do. They want to see their children grow up in a world that is free of strife, plenty of food on the table and opportunities for pulling themselves up from their station in life if they choose to. They want peace.
I also believe that we live in a world that has never rested from war and most likely will continue. There is a small band of individuals who are warped and evil finds a way into their lives. They are not patient. They are not reasonable. They do not compromise. It is the old story of good vs. evil. Achieving peace is like trying to grasp sand.
I have seen a grown German man weep before me as we walked the solitude of a Nazi concentration camp as he tries to handle the national burden of WWII and Hitler’s atrocities. He knows right from wrong. He tells me that he is thankful that the USA saved his family during the post-war air drops when the Germans were starving and there was little hope. My father fought there. Our nation bombed there. And yet, I call this man friend and he does the same with me. We are members of the same family of peace and good will.
I have looked into the angry eyes of the many soldiers who returned home from Vietnam not as heroes and to this day, still feel that the world makes them out to be villains at times. These service men and women came from the good people, the 99.9%. As I have watched families at the “Wall” in Washington D.C. my heart broke as they traced their fingers across each letter of the man or woman who gave their life to right a wrong in a far away nation.
I believe that evil finds its way into the hearts and minds of certain souls. It twists them into thinking that their cause is just and right. This very small percentage of mankind crops up from time to time and challenges the welfare of the 99.9% who wish to live in a peaceful world. This small band of evil brings hatred into the world and bullies its way into the lives of the weak until someone stands up and says, “Not here, not again, not on my watch.”
Evil sometimes takes form in charismatic leaders. There are some people who need to follow this type of individual. They take their anger out on whatever unfairness they see or have experienced and they use them as an excuse for their violent actions against others. Our armed forces have been there to counter this craziness.
So I ask that we remember those who served their country and were taken from us in the heat of the many battles that America has been engaged in. Let us take time to learn of their mission and duties. Get to know them as people and not just a mass of bodies. They went to school with us, lived down the street. They were part of a family. Comfort their families who have only memories to cling to.
Honor and respect our fallen that have served our country and judge them each on their own individual merits. Let us never forget. They deserve at least that much from us.
Dr. John Hamels is a familiar face in Chautauqua County. He is a well known educator, having been a Special Education Teacher, Training Specialist, Principal and now a retired School Superintendent. He has a wide range of interests, serves on a variety of boards of directors in the region, consults and presents as an Adjunct at JCC. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.