By: Randy Tucker
We are bombarded by the message of sacrifice that the current generation is making because of the quarantine, social distancing, and isolation of the COVID-19 epidemic.
We get it; the kids can’t have a prom, they don’t get to walk at graduation, track, tennis, and soccer have all been canceled. There might not even be a baseball season.
They’ve had a bit of a setback in their social lives.
It’s not the setback their great-grandparents felt in World War II. It’s not the setback their grandfathers felt during Vietnam either.
To quote a lyric from the Bellamy Brothers song “Old Hippie:”
He was sure back in the sixties that everyone was hip
Then they sent him off to Vietnam on his senior trip
And they forced him to become a man while he was still a boy
And in each wave of tragedy he waited for the joy
Now this world may change around him
But he just can't change no more
Families suffer when a young man is called off to defend his country. In World War II, food rationing, gas rationing, limits on electricity usage, and even blackouts along the coasts were all part of daily life. No one liked it, but it was what it took for the men of the “Greatest Generation” to defeat Hitler, Tojo, and Mussolini. It was a sacrifice the mothers, wives, and daughters of these fighting men endured on the home front in their absence.
Vietnam was the most unpopular war in American History. Rather than glorify the draft dodgers, draft card burners, along with the elite that found exemptions that kept them out of Southeast Asia, we should respect, honor, and revere those who answered the call, in spite of its unpopularity.
As an 11-year-old fifth grader at David A. Weir Elementary School in Fairfield, California, I went grocery shopping with my mom every other Saturday at the commissary at Travis Air Force Base. The wives of non-commissioned officers and airmen thronged there the day after payday twice a month.
The commissary was located near the flight line at Travis.
For those who don’t know, or don’t remember, Travis Air Force Base was the last stop in the continental USA for many soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines. It was the first stop back “to the world” after their tour was over.
It was also the final stop for tens of thousands of men who would never see home again.
As we took our groceries back to our 1962 Chevy Nova station wagon, we could see the C-141s coming back from Vietnam.
On a couple occasions, I watched airmen unloading rows of aluminum caskets with a forklift out of the cargo bay of those C-141s.
Even at 11, I knew what was inside. A few of the older brothers and uncles of my friends came home in those aluminum coffins.
It was a somber, sobering moment, even for a happy kid who had few other worries in the world.
Jump ahead a few years, and I turned 18 in the fall of 1974. We had a very small graduating class, just 26 kids overall, 13 boys and 13 girls. Three of us had the same birthday.
Our school gave us a half-day off to sign up for the draft when our time came.
The war was unpopular, even in very patriotic, conservative Wyoming.
There was no recruiting office in the little town that served our rural community. Instead, Roger, Jerry, and I drove to a filling station at the crossroads in Riverton and signed up there.
The man who processed our papers was a local American Legion member who worked part-time registering the boys of our county for the draft.
Our numbers were never called. The war in Vietnam was officially over a few months later.
Still, the thought of those young men who gave their all, coming home in those metal boxes stayed with me.
When the call came, they answered.
I wonder if we ever had a major conflict and the draft was re-instated if the young men of today would answer that same call. I’d like to think they would, but we live in a vastly different time, in a country fractured by political division, with an infuriating concentration on self, self-esteem, and a notable lack of civic commitment.
To the old hippies who made that senior trip. The ones who didn’t get parades, the ones who didn’t get a thank you, the ones who were reviled when they came home: thank you.
Randy Tucker is a retired history teacher and freelance writer from western Wyoming. He has a lifetime of experience in farming, ranching, hunting and fishing in the shadow of the Wind River Mountains. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.