The Accidental Veteran

McGHEE TYSON AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Tenn. -- My friend Gail Spain was an accidental veteran. Like many of his age (born in 1947) he began college but soon felt a draft. His grades did not merit a deferment but he did have enough credits to qualify for an Army commission and so he became what was then known as a "ninety-day wonder." Lieutenants were in short supply in Vietnam, and so within a year he found himself tromping through foreign rice fields desperately trying to lead a less-than-motivated mix of his peers. It wasn't what he had planned for his life at that point, but it was where he was and so he set out to make the most of it and, in the words of the later Bee Gees, "stayin alive."

He finished his tour, left the Army, married his sweetheart, finished college and began working as an engineer for a major tire company, the same company he recently retired from. Like many of his peers, he put the war behind him and rarely spoke of his experiences. He would talk of his wife, brag on his daughters, but unless you asked him, not much was said about his "Army time."

But he did have a single picture of that era, a snapshot of a very skinny, shirtless "kid" in a jungle setting with one of those look-mom-what-I'm-doing grins on his face. When he showed it to me, enough years had passed that his Army era had shifted from being an unwelcomed interruption to a source of middle-aged pride.

On the golf cart waiting to tee-off we would often launch into our mutual war stories. They were mostly the ones where you had to be there, but they were usually good for two or three holes of conversation and a couple of good laughs. His funniest story was about his solitary war wound where an outgoing artillery shell hit an antenna wire above his head, exploded and a piece of shrapnel cut his hand. As he would explain, it didn't qualify for a Purple Heart and he was quite okay with that! There really wasn't anything funny about it, but somehow he made it so.

Before retiring, he very methodically managed a transfer south and built a house on a golf course so that he could continue his very poor game of golf full time. When his second grandchild appeared so did something on his hand, one of those you-should-get-that-checked-out growths.

The news wasn't good. He accelerated his retirement date to fight the cancer full time, but alas the cancer accelerated its spread also. I scheduled a trip to see him, but I was too late.

Last May I was sitting in a concert by an Air Force band at the beautiful Clayton Center when my phone vibrated. Anticipating the call, I stepped out to receive the sad news and as I discreetly made my way back in, at that very moment, they began playing the Army song and every Army veteran was invited to stand.

It was a serendipitous moment, for Gail, had he been there, would have proudly stood with his peers, a crowd of mostly geriatric, bifocal wearing, proud Vietnam veterans, many of whom were just like Gail, accidental veterans.

Back then we didn't have smart bombs or smart weapons, but we had smart men. And brave men. On this day we tip our hats to the Gail Spains of this world, who as skinny "kids" put aside their own plans and served, mostly unappreciated in a hot, sweaty, dangerous part of the world.

It was a confusing war and we still debate it, but I don't think anyone is confused on just how much we appreciate our Vietnam veterans.