Tuesday, November 09, 2021

Veterans Day 2021: One Vet's Not All Sad

What was it supposed to be, if not this?

Michael Sedano


I was a soldier. I am a Veteran. Seven percent of United Statesians have worn the uniforms the nation observes on Veterans Day. Imagine that, because there aren't that many of us around, so you might not know a Veteran of U.S. military service.


It’s been many a year that I grow morose as Veterans Day nears. It was my first Veterans Day out of the service.An interviewer for my Dream Job as a Debate Coach told me “You’ve been away from debate too long,” to be hired at Moorpark College. I admit that shook me up for a long time.


The interviewer asked, did you see any combat? Would I be coaching debate today if I’d killed people for him? Would my “time away from debate” been shorter? 

Sedano, Center foto, right. Mud Day.


“Sedano. Front and center.”


39 men relax imperceptibly at their name not being “Sedano.” For his part, Sedano understands he’s not expected to answer verbally. He strides to the stage and stands at Attention.


Bayonet training culminates the nation’s 8-week curriculum converting civilians into soldiers. It’s April 1969. We can run and march as a unit. We shoot guns and throw hand grenades. We breathe CS gas. We can punch and kick and stomp a man or woman, in theory. We will kill (name withheld because we have no idea, que no?) We can take it. Seven weeks of everything three Drill Sergeants and an asshole mess sergeant throw at us, and we took it. We are those fabled “rough men at the ready.”


“What is the purpose of the bayonet?”


My brother got the record for his birthday, it was red clear vinyl. Must have been 1955, I was ten. Tiny grooves yet they played all the armed forces songs. We played that disc endlessly, sang along to all of them, even the Coast Guard. We played war, our imaginations stoked by the lyrics, semper paratus is our guide, fame fortune, wild blue yonder, over hill over dale we have hit the dusty trail. Montezoooma.


“When you hear The Army Song,” Drill Sergeant lectures, you stand. “No matter where you are or what the occasion, when that song plays, you honor every man and woman who served before and after you. You stand."

Ft Ord., February 1969. Barbara brings tacos. I wear my white maggot patch.

“Over hill…” is The Army Song. It means something. I stand when I hear it. I stand out when I do.


The Rose Parade 1986, our first year in the new Pasadena home. We buy tickets on the corner of Colorado and Lake. Pretty good spot, tired musicians have rested between Arroyo Parkway and Vroman’s, where the bands pick up the beat and start playing again.


Totally cool for us, we can hear it when the bands approach, drums rattattating the cadence. The pianist in me hears that four-four beat and the Veteran in me imagines a voice calling out.


“Hut.” We march in step, 40 of us basic trainees. Hut. Hut. Every few steps he calls out “Left.” Sometimes Drill Sergeant sings a song. We are happy to hear the happy song. Poison Ivvvy, late at night when you’re sleeping Charlie Cong comes a’creepin along.”


Here comes this year’s Army band. Rattat hut hut. The Drum Major lifts the Mace high, sounds out a long tweeeee-eeeeeet! Then staccato Tweet tweet tweet! Only trodding boots make a sound, in unison to the 4/4 beat. 


Hut. Hut. Hut. The opening notes every soldier every kid every civilian in the United States recognizes as the over hill over dale we have hit the dusty trail as the caissons go rolling along song. Catchy tune.


I’m on my feet before the unsung lyric reaches “Hill.” The marching band, playing into the eighth measure, approaches my grandstand. I'm standing, alone among the seated mass at Lake. Hand salute, it's the Flag, gente. It's the Song, people.

The Drum Major looks at me. He tweets a short attention to the players. 


Tweet tweet tweet. “Eyeee-ss, LEFT”


“we have hit the dusty trail…” the Army Band plays with Eyes Left on me, fingers and lungs breathing the tune for all these folks, but this Song, it’s for me. Eyes front. The band marches past the Bank of America. “For it’s hi hi hee in the field artillery.”


View of North Korea from Mae Bong. Summer 1969.

Me, I was Air Defense Artillery. I sit down. People look at me. I stood for the flag, pendejos. And the Song. I'm a Veteran.I was a soldier.


The training buildings up on maggot hill cluster near an auditorium where we’re trained as a company. Today, platoon-level activities are the Order of the Day. Usually we stack our M-14 rifles outside the classroom building where we come to be trained. When we get there early we do push-ups to pass time. We always get there early.


Army Basic Training teaches patience and humility. In December, I’d been lecturing at the University. In March I’m being lectured to like a 9-year old who knows all the songs. I am 23 years old. Today, we carry our weapons inside to sit awkwardly in orderly rows, elbow to rifle to shoulder. Except Sedano. 


I’ve been called to the front, to pose on command. Drill Sergeant and I have a stage, a riser a foot above floor level where I look across the faces of my platoon, a bunch of teenagers. I scream and shout con gusto, hyeah! Right thrust, move! Hyeah! A bunch of us are Draftees like I am. A sizeable number are RA, Regular Army guys who joined. A few National Guardsmen and Enlisted Reserve join our ranks. They eat last, by the way. Parry left, move! Hyeah! Right thrust, move! Hyeah!


“Men,” Drill Sergeant asks. I’m standing at Port Arms, the M-14 making a sharp diagonal across my chest. The eyes of the men shift from the giant Smokey Bear hatted leader to me with my piss pot. In the movies, he asks me to attack him and I kick his ass. 


“Men, What is the purpose of the bayonet?”


Drill Sergeant is doing this to torture us. Makes us tough. He knows it’s so damned ridiculous to have to say what we have to say when we say what is the purpose of this foot-long knife with the sharp point at the end of seven inches of thin lethal steel. Pointing my bayonet, looking down at the platoon, standing on this podium, I’m so damned glad I am not expected to answer. 


“Men, What is the purpose of the bayonet?”


“Drill Sergeant! The Purpose of the Bayonet, is to strike Fear into the hearts of our enemy!”


I’m looking at the guys and the guys are looking back at me striking fear into the hearts of our enemy. They’re all glazed-eyed from being too tired not to laugh, but knowing if they laugh they are in deep deep shit from the Drill Sergeant and his minions, stationed to pounce.


The men don’t dare laugh. Inside, I’m making faces at them and giving them the finger, daring them not to laugh. And they’re pulling it off. The training worked, we’re a Unit. These guys share my misery and they don’t laugh at my performance nor their own absurdity. Finally, they are laughing. At the tops of their bloodthirsty lungs, their laughter sounds exactly like “Fear into the hearts of our enemy!” I find myself shouting with them.


“Right Face. On Guard.” Bayonet training today ends with a Pageant of the Masters Tableau, The American Fighting Soldier. I assume the position.


Sedano wears a piss pot steel helmet, green fatigues dotted with drying yellow-red mud from the morning’s crawling in it. Sedano’s right leg bends back at the knee, his leather combat boot flat. The hollow wooden podium drums when the soldier’s left boot slams forward onto the podium. Sedano bends his left knee to lean forward, pointing his M-14 with its sheathed bayonet at an imaginary enemy. Flags and a loud fanfare would have been a nice touch.


Drill Sergeant puts me At Ease after that and dismisses me. I’m thinking as I take my seat, anyone who gets into a bayonet fight is in deep shit. I hope they make me a clerk.


Basic Combat Training culminates in a battle royale, of sorts. Three soldiers form a gauntlet with simulated bayonets—pugil sticks—and have a bayonet fight with one after another soldier until every soldier has fought three times. And three soldiers have fought 39 times. I am number one of three.


“Parry Left and Thrust! Ready…”


Sedano looks excitedly at the manuscript. He’s identified a good copy of Aristotle, but one that made the voyage from Spain. Sedano’s Ph. D. studies move along with the new manuscript. He is retranslating the rhetorical tradition as it comes to America from Spain and into Spanish from Greek and from English. He is building a schemes and tropes handbook, illustrating his modern rhetoric handbook exclusively from Chicano Literature. He is having the time of his life, Santa Barbara to Austin. Young, free, in Love. It's 1970, Barbara's enjoying the change of scenery, life is good.


But that didn’t happen. He got drafted. “Ready, Fight!” And he beats up 36 soldiers. And gets pounded three times, twice quite badly. Bit the dust, as Homer says in Greek.


That’s why I’m not morose this year. Those memories are good memories of good times, in actuality, all things considered. 

Ask a Veteran, she or he will tell you, “I’d do it again.” 

Even though it completely changed the course of our lives. 

That’s what it means, “I’m a Veteran, I was a soldier.”

Sedano as a soldier following orders: Mufti in the Ville.




jmu said...

At least the drum major saw you standing there all by your lonesome.

Do you also yell "hooah" when the Army is name-checked at an event you are attending?

Chuck said...

“ To walk my post in a military manner, keeping always on the alert, and observing everything that takes place within sight or hearing…”