Thanking a Special Veteran
Today, we as a nation say thank you to the men and women of the Armed Forces past and present for their sacrifices for us. The 23 million living veterans, including the 1 million LGBT ones, represent the quiet devotion to duty that makes each of them a hero, even though they will reject the term, stating, “I only did my job.” On this Veterans Day, I want to tell you about a soldier, unheralded by history but a man who represented the dedication to our country and belief in our values that we honor today. Let me tell you about Private Orient Neira, B Battery, 121st FA, 32nd Infantry Division. Let me tell you about my dad.
Ours is not a military family with a rich martial tradition. Prior to my dad and my uncles serving in WWII, the only military man in the family had been a naval officer who served in the Spanish-American War – for the wrong side. But when war came, my dad, the son of immigrants, enlisted in the Army in January 1942 and shipped out to the Pacific, ultimately serving in Australia and New Guinea. Initially, his job was to carry a BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle) or a .30 cal machine gun for battery defense. After being transferred from front line service, he served as a general duty soldier in Port Moresby until he came home to be discharged in August of 1945.
My pop was the proudest E-1 in the Army. He relished the fact that he went in as a private and left as a private, turning down several attempts to promote him to sergeant. “They didn’t make me, so they couldn’t break me,” was his way of explaining avoiding promotion and increased responsibility. By his accounts, he was not a paragon of military discipline. As a child asking the clichéd question, “Daddy, what did you do during the war?” I often got some tale about his scrounging exploits – whether obtaining booze for his officers or giving rations to the Australian civilians near camp – that never spoke of combat or martial glory. So, I never really knew what he did as a soldier except that he would have bouts of sweats and chills due to the malaria and never to sneak up on him. As a toddler, I did once – to kiss him good night. I startled him and he reflexively lashed out his arm, knocking me across the room. It was the only time I ever saw my dad afraid and it was the only time he ever struck me. He apologized immediately and mumbled something about the Japanese and the jungle, never mentioning it again as I grew up.
My father was always proud of his service and instilled in me a love of country and a sense of duty that ultimately led me to Annapolis and the Navy. Serving our country was the common bond I had with my father. It was the link to get past the differences in our politics and not seeing eye-to-eye about the virtues of military discipline and regulations. I know that he was proud of me. When I left the Navy – because accepting myself meant sacrificing my career – it wounded my father as much as it did me. The ignorance and bigotry that underlie some of our military regulations harm more than just the individual service member; they also harm our loved ones.
While proud of my dad, I would have described my father’s military career as more Sgt. Bilko and less Sgt. Rock. In my opinion (when I was a serving officer), he would have given Beetle Bailey a contest for best slacker. Or so I thought until I came home from my own war in 1991. I was sitting on our porch with my father, talking about the war and he got suddenly serious. He looked at me with teary eyes and said:
“Now that you’ve gone to war yourself, I can finally tell you about what I did during the war. You always asked me but I could never tell you. You would not have understood before. War is not something glorious; it’s not like the movies. It’s hell.”
He went on to tell a story of a frightened young soldier in the jungle, being shot at, rounds coming from somewhere in the jungle, and returning fire in the general direction. He was hit by a spent enemy machine gun round that grazed his hand. “It wasn’t nothing,” so he never told anyone. He spoke of caring about doing his job and protecting his buddies. He wanted to do his duty and hold up his weight. The man I pictured as the star of some military sitcom was someone clearly different.
His story reflected the universal truths about being in combat. One reacts, trying to stay alive and keep those around him alive. One cares about not being seen as a coward; being seen as someone who pulls their share of the load. One who is focused on the mission. One who doesn’t care about the sexual orientation of their fellow soldiers.
I know my dad did not care. Years later, as my partner and I provided hospice care for him as he was dying, he shared another story of his time in New Guinea. One night while he was on beach patrol, he was tasked with clearing the beach at taps. This was after a detachment of WACs had arrived to take over clerical duties in the headquarters to free more men for combat assignments. So there were several couples lying in the sand dunes. (Think of South Pacific – warm, starry nights, swaying palms, sand, surf and couples of young, virile American men and women.) He had to go roust one couple that didn’t leave the beach. As he gently urged the couple to move along with his boot, he was surprised to find that they were both women. They finally noticed my dad, were instantly terrified at being discovered in a lesbian embrace, and ran away. The next day they found my father and wanted to know if he would turn them in (at a time when being gay in the military meant risking a dishonorable discharge). Their relief must have been palpable when he said he didn’t care and had no plans to do anything about it other than to insist that when he tells them to get off the beach next time to do so.
Supporters of DADT insist that the presence of openly gay and lesbian service members will undermine unit cohesion, morale, good order, discipline and combat efficiency. As my father’s story illustrates, soldiers in a war zone could care less about someone’s sexual orientation. All they care about is accomplishing the mission, taking care of each other, and coming home alive. It was true in New Guinea in 1944 and it is just as true today in Iraq and Afghanistan.
11-11-09 By Paula Neira, RN, CEN, Esq., LT, USNR (1985-1991) |