Posted by: MC | September 4, 2011

Listening to the Military

It’s Labor Day.  Over the course of our country’s history, one place many people have found work has been in the military.

I’m not a military person.  I know a few veterans and I like them but outside movies, newscasts and the anti-war protests I’ve been a part of over the years, I know almost nothing about military service.

I hadn’t counted until now, but turns out six of the people who talked with me about change for the 100 Voices book mentioned having served in the U.S. armed forces:  Art Garcia (voice 002, Portland), Bob Bliss (voice 017, Walnut Grove, CA), Bob Potter (voice 022, Santa Barbara) and his colleague, Steve, Ed Kemp, Jr. (voice 046, Jackson, MS) and Jason (voice 062, Decatur, GA).  Todd Franklin (voice 027,San Diego) is active in the Coast Guard Reserves.  That may be the way it is for those of us with little personal connection to military communities.  Maybe lots of non-military folks are like me and don’t put military service high in lists of characteristics we draw on as we think of the people we know.  It’s just not among the first things that come to mind.

This morning, I had a totally unique opportunity – a chance meeting with two people whose lives are intensely associated with the military.  One is a veteran of Viet Nam, a career marine who “made it clear to the rank of Sergeant Major, the highest you can get as an enlisted man.”  The other is the daughter of a Sergeant Major who was also from the Viet Nam era, also career military, “I grew up on bases, but my father wasn’t home much.  He was good man, a devoted Marine.  He served all over the world; a commissioned officer by the end.”

I happened into this pair at a coffee shop early this morning.  Before dawn.  All of us are early-to-bed-early-to-rise types.  Onyx, was in a motorized wheelchair.  Mr. Gordy had walked with her into the coffee shop where we stood in line together and started chatting.  Onyx and Mr. Gordy know each other because of both having to deal with some pretty major disability situations that require frequent and lengthy treatments.  Communities are communities.  Friends show up where your day-to-day life happens and both of these people spend a lot of time at the dialysis center near the coffee shop.

Onyx said she’d also been in a car accident recently.  “Messed me up, big time,” she said.  I don’t remember exactly how we got there, but the talk shifted from her gratitude for veterans’ family benefits to talking about the military itself.

Both Onyx and Mr. Gordy are African-American.  I had been in another conversation a few weeks ago with a friend, also a veteran, whose dad served in WWII.  He had told me that, back then his father made the decision to enlist in the army because the only other options he saw he had were to be a porter or a janitor. “He went through boot camp like anyone else, but there was a policy then that no black enlisted men were issued rifles. ‘You won’t need one,’ was what they were told. ‘All you’re going to be doing is working in the mess hall and doing KP.’ But, that wasn’t the case.  When you’re in combat, you’re in combat.  Sure enough, my father found himself running up a hill with his unit at the Battle of the Bulge.  A white soldier in front of him caught fatal gunfire.  My dad picked up his rifle and never let it go.”

I looked up ‘Battle of the Bulge’ on Wikipedia – “For the Americans, with about 840,000 men committed and some 89,000 casualties, including 19,000 killed, the Battle of the Bulge was the largest and bloodiest battle that they fought in World War II”  There where white men and black men in those numbers.  My friend’s dad made it out alive and had a remarkably distinguished military career.

“It’s so different, now,” Onyx said.  “I remember my dad saying, ‘My life has been saved by a white-American marine, a Chinese-American marine, a Mexican-American marine.  This household here doesn’t have any room for racism of any kind.  Their lives are my responsibility and mine is theirs.”

“As he advanced in rank,” Onyx went on, “he got more and more orders that took him away from home.  But marines are family and if you live on the base like we did, everyone looks out for everyone else.  If I thought I was going to have a boyfriend I was sadly mistaken.  One of my dad’s colleagues who was there on base at the time would always get wind of it. ‘The O.D. is here and that boy can just go elsewhere to find a girlfriend.’ That’s what they called themselves; O.D. for other dad.  There was no crossing an O.D. and they came in every single color and race.”  Onyx smiled.

“Yeah,” Mr. Gordy added, “When I enlisted, our commander was a black man, second in command was a white man.  The commander said, ‘Every marine here is two colors; red and green.  You’re red if you’re bleeding and you’re green in uniform.  Am I understood?  Leave all the rest of that behind because there is no room for it here.’

“It’s not like it’s gone away totally,” Mr. Gordy continued, “but it’s much better than it was for my father.”  Mr. Gordy’s father was at Pearl Harbor.  “Then he was at Iwo Jima.  Then at Kwajalien, he and the other black soldiers were assigned as usual to digging a major trench when Brigadier General Chesty Puller came out of his command tent and said, ‘We need every possible man for this next offensive and we need them right now.  Those men over there digging; issue them arms; no time to waste.’

“That was the first time black marines were issued weapons.  Chesty Puller’s the one who changed it.  After that series of offensives, he went from the Japanese theatre to D.C. and made it clear to President Roosevelt that the change had to stick.  He fought lots of opposition in Congress, but in the end, Brigadier General Chesty Puller made it so from there forward black soldiers were armed.

“Now, that was a real marine.  They called him ‘Chesty’ forChester, but also because he was one powerfully barrel-chested man. And he was only this high.”  Mr. Gordy stood up and held his hand about a foot below his own height. “Only one inch above the cut-off, and a hero in more ways than history can probably even know.”

As I listened this morning to Mr. Gordy and Onyx, I felt the way I do when I’m around experts in any of the zillion areas in which I have little knowledge.  I knew I was missing a lot because I don’t have the language, I don’t know the culture.  What I do know now in a way I couldn’t have before that there is a rich and complex culture among military service personnel in our country.  I now know that culture varies some across branches of service.  I know that great shifts in the larger society’s systems of discrimination, exclusion and injustice have occurred in the culture of the armed services.    Most important, I realize my biases against the military – the ugliest ones based in stereotypes of gratuitous violence, war hunger, mindless and thoughtless authoritarianism – the most judgmental side of my peace-loving value system – were based in way too little information.

This is the way it is with really listening.  The world gets richer.  People’s reliability and goodness show up as most essential to who they are.  I’m not saying there aren’t exceptions, because there are; but my experience again with the spirit of the EX:Change – each of the 100 Voices and everyone else who’s talked with me since – is that there remains a great deal for us to learn about one another on this globe, a great deal to love and care about.  And that learning, I am increasingly convinced, is our way through the crazy contention of our times.


  1. This was lovely. Thank you for forwarding this link to me. The older I get, the more I am humbled by how people “do” life.

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