By JAMES MCCONNELL
I read something the other day that brought into focus some things I don’t normally talk about. The anonymous quote said simply, “A veteran is a person who wrote a blank check to his country.”
I am a proud veteran. I am also a lucky veteran. My check was never cashed.
This country withdrew everything from my friend David Fox’s account. David and I met when we were assigned the same flight instructor at helicopter flight school in Mineral Wells, Texas, in July of 1969.
We soon found we had a lot in common. We both grew up on small dairy farms, he in central New York and me in Ohio. Neither of us intended to make the military a career, and we hoped to go back to the home farm when our obligation to Uncle Sam was finished.
We both became commissioned officers through ROTC (Reserve Officers’ Training Corps) in college for the same reason: In the mid-1960s, if you were a healthy American male college student, you either stayed in college or were likely to end up in the military. Neither of us had a great desire for either graduate school or the military, but rationalized if the odds came down to military service in our future, we ought to do it on our own terms.
I always wanted to be a pilot, but I’m not sure about David. I think flying just struck him as an interesting challenge. We both chose the Army because we had a chance to fly with a commitment of five years rather than seven in the Navy or Air Force. Both of us wanted to get back to the farm sooner rather than later.
David was married. I was not. His wife, Arleen, also grew up on a dairy farm, so we three had a lot in common. She was a good cook and liked to feed some of us bachelors, which was a welcome treat. They made a nice couple. He was tall and lanky, while she was short and petite.
Like so many of us, they were out of place in the military environment — just making the best of it until they could settle down back home.
We talked about the same things and had many of the same ambitions. We had big plans for the home farms when we were done with the Army, and imagined ourselves raising our kids as members of extended families in a rural environment. The Army was just an interlude before our real lives would begin.
We also had a lot of things on our mind we didn’t talk about. There was always the knowledge we were headed for Southeast Asia and all the unknown risks, both real and imagined, that awaited us.
All of our future plans, lofty and otherwise, were tempered by the unspoken knowledge that we had to be lucky enough to survive whatever came after the training was done.
My luck held. David’s didn’t.
David was in the Infantry branch of the Army, while I was in the Transportation Corps. When David arrived in Vietnam, he was assigned to a front line unit to fly combat missions. When I arrived after further training as a maintenance officer, I was assigned to a maintenance unit to repair combat-damaged helicopters.
When David flew, he was shot at more times than he could count. When I flew, if I was ever shot at, I never knew it.
On Feb. 8, 1971, in Laos, two weeks before his daughter was born, David’s blank check to his country was cashed. Mercifully, David probably never knew it.
I’ve never forgotten it. I eventually made it home, uninjured but not unaffected.
I’ve been able to achieve everything David and I both hoped our futures held for us and more. I have three outstanding daughters who are happily married, grandchildren who adore me and I them, a loving wife who treats me better than I deserve and an extended family and community to which I enjoy contributing.
I’ve lived nearly 40 years David never had a chance to experience.
David’s fate versus my good fortune is not something that consumes my daily thoughts. However, the reminders come easily.
Seeing a snappy color guard presenting the colors at a parade or hearing the national anthem or God Bless America sung well makes me catch my breath. Smiles, hugs and kisses from grandchildren and the smell of freshly mown hay or newly turned soil seldom fail to remind me of my blessings. Sometimes just the majesty of a soaring hawk in a blue sky or a grazing fawn in a green alfalfa field thickens my throat and gives me pause.
Like most veterans, my blank check to my country was never cashed. I will always be paying interest on the debt l owe to David and the other service men and women whose accounts were paid in full.
(Jim McConnell is a dairy and grain farmer in Lorain County. This column was first printed in an issue of Ag Credit, and the Ohio Rural Electric Cooperatives’ Country Living.)