At Air Force’s dog-and-pony show, many veterans sound pro-peace

As with many past Labor Day weekends, I had an enjoyable–albeit taxing time in the oppressive heat–promoting peace to people headed to the Cleveland National Air Show at Burke Lakefront Airport. I stood at the northeast corner of East Ninth Street and North Marginal Drive across from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame greeting people in my 55-year-old U.S. Army dress uniform and of course holding my peace flag.      

From my perspective as a Vietnam veteran, I felt there needed to be a voice for peace-especially from someone who has experienced the bitter taste of war–to serve as a counterweight to the mindless, macho, star-spangled red-white-and blue dog-and-pony show that this year was a not-so-subtle public relations gambit for the U.S. Air Force, since that military branch’s Thunderbirds precision flying team was the major draw.     

An air force officer with his wife and their two young sons stopped to chat for a bit. He was wearing his one-piece flight suit, so I decided to have a little fun with him. I said to the officer, who is a lieutenant colonel as indicated by the silver oak leaf cluster pin on his cap, “I like your onesie. It’s a lot bigger than the first onesie you wore. No snaps in the crotch on this one, though” He smiled. I asked if he flew one of the Thunderbirds and he said, “I wish. I fly a tanker–a gas station in the sky.” Such planes refuel other planes in mid-air via a long tube extending from the tanker’s fuel-laden belly to a jet flying under the tanker, but a little behind it.  The officer asked what I was doing, and I said, “I’m promoting peace. We need much more peace, civility, tolerance, mutual respect and compassion in our society. Those qualities have eroded over the past several years.” He said, “I agree.” The officer flies out of Rickenbacker Air National Guard Base near Columbus and is a pilot for Southwest Airlines. (I assume his air force tanker plane was on display at the air show.)

Several minutes later a young man, with his girlfriend, asked where I served. I said, “Gettysburg, Shiloh and Vicksburg.”He said nothing, which was rather unsettling. I finally said, “Just kidding. I was in Vietnam.” Then he said, “I didn’t think any Civil War veterans were still alive.” (Oh my GOD!! The words “oatmeal for brains” came to mind.)          Sometime later, a young boy about eight years old said, “What war were you in?” I said, “Civil War.” His mom laughed. (No oatmeal there.)

A young man came up to me, extending his hand to shake mine, thanking me for my service. I said, as I did to several other people, “Wasn’t my idea. I got drafted!” Turns out he is on active duty in the U.S. Army, based in Columbus but was dressed in civilian clothes. We were at opposite ends of the spectrum, however, as his army job is to recruit people to join the army, which of course is not something I would do.  In the past I have talked with young boys with their moms who wanted to join the army and said, “You could be a medic or a doctor in the army so you could help heal people rather than kill people. Wouldn’t that be better” The moms appreciated my suggestion. 

A veteran I talked with said he was an E-5 rank in the air force. I was one rank lower, E-4, in the army. Since he outranked me, I said, “You’re not going to make me do 20 pushups, are you?” He laughed and said, “No” and as he walked away said, “peace and love.” One young man I talked with said he “couldn’t agree more” with my peace message and I said “What did those wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan accomplish? Lots of death and destruction and billions of dollars for war profiteers. We were sent to Vietnam to kill communists and now Vietnam, a communist country, is our ally against China. All those lives wasted.” 

A few people remembered me from past Labor Day peace initiatives and one bicyclist said, “I respect your dedication.”  Another, oddly enough, asked if I was “recruiting,” apparently not noticing my peace flag.  I said, “I’m recruiting for peace. I like peace more than war.”  One gentleman mentioned he was in the army in the ’80s in Germany, repairing vehicles in the motor pool. He and his wife listened intently as I said, “When people thank me for serving our country, I say ‘I didn’t serve my country. I served deceitful, lying, fear-mongering, war-mongering politicians and their war-profiteering bed partners. Those truly serving our country are medics, nurses, doctors and mental health professionals who work very very hard to mend as best they can, the psyches and bodies of those savaged and ravaged by war. They are the real war heroes. Not those who kill and destroy. That’s not heroic. It’s barbaric.”  The veteran’s wife said, “I commend you for that. May I take your picture?”  Of course, I said ‘yes’ and encouraged her to circulate it as much as possible. 

I talked with a veteran who had enlisted in the army, serving in Germany during the ’80s. He said he felt like he “missed out on something” by not serving in a war, which sounded pretty crazy to me. He said some of his army buddies in Germany were of like mind. As one who lost a lieutenant during the Tet Offensive three days after his 23rd birthday, I said, “You mean you are sorry you missed out on grief and sorrow and blood and guts?” He had no response.

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