Saturday, July 17, 2004

Thin on the Bench

I've known about this unique military personnel situation for awhile, but have been reluctant to write up a piece. The Sunday NY Times saved me the trouble.

There's something inherently wrong with our government requiring a 59 year old guy, who's last name isn't Rambo, to ride shotgun on an Apache helicopter in Iraq. Listen, as a young pup, I served in a much less physically rigorous billet in the military - and in middle age wouldn't even think about reprising that role. This guy apparently had a lot of unresolved issues from Vietnam, but at 59, had absolutely no business in Iraq doing anything but backoffice support (if even that). Me, if I've got a midlife crisis to resolve, I'm buying a Vette, not flying to a war zone.

This is but one story in a lengthy Sunday NY Times article about older reservists serving in Iraq:

When her husband's unit was called up, Mrs. Chaney was recovering from surgery and treatment for cancer, but she did not ask him to stay. She knew he had a deep need to go, a desire nurtured over 30 years. 'Bill said he wanted to finish what he didn't finish in Vietnam,' she said. 'He said, 'This will be the last time I go away to war.' '

Drafted into the Army in 1967, he served for two years before coming home to a nation where opposition to the Vietnam War - and sometimes to the soldiers who fought there - had not yet reached its crest. Seeking to put his Army training as an air traffic controller to use, he was told it did not qualify him for a job in commercial aviation, his wife said. So he went to work in a warehouse. He once sought out other veterans at a V.F.W. post near his home in Schaumburg, Ill., a Chicago suburb, but felt less than welcome.

Where the military was concerned, 'he was kind of bitter about everything,' Mrs. Chaney said.

Not until 1986, when a huge 'welcome home' parade for Vietnam veterans in Chicago attracted more than a half-million people, including Sergeant Chaney, was he able to begin putting those feelings aside. He began talking regularly with veterans he had met there. Three years later, he joined the Illinois National Guard.

Sergeant Chaney went back to what he knew best: repairing helicopters and teaching younger soldiers to do the same. He also served as a helicopter crew chief, sitting behind the pilot and co-pilot, manning the machine gun that juts out the helicopter door - the same job he had in Vietnam.

This Mother's Day, May 9, Mrs. Chaney was surprised to receive her husband's call from a military hospital in Germany. He had been evacuated from the combat zone because of severe abdominal pain and had undergone surgery to remove part of his small intestine. They spoke a couple of times that week, as his condition improved. But when she called on May 18, he was dead, apparently of a blood clot in his lungs. Military officials had not yet contacted her, she said, and that has been a source of continued anguish during the two months since."
Guys over 50 should be swapping stories and exchanging grandkid's pictures over a beer in the VFW, not manning gunships and driving Hummers on the front line. I don't care how much you want to get behind the wheel of a Hummer. This just ain't right.

Kate had an earlier post referencing Dante's Inferno. There's a special circle of hell for a 20-something military detailer at the Pentagon sending a guy nearing senior citizenship to the front line in Iraq.

It just ain't right. And it's also telling you something about how thin on the bench our military is right now.