I suppose “military bearing” presents a lot of different ways. The polished and impeccable “company behavior” they teach at boot camp is never so striking to me as during the element of surprise. That’s probably precisely why it’s drilled like any other skill — so that it’s there without thought, amid any other chaos, it’s a solid default.
I’ve gotten to call probably a dozen service members to tell them they’ve won prizes — often it’s trips, cool ones like to Hawaii or a dude ranch — and I have never had a single one say anything worthy of a bleep. Yesterday was no exception. I’ve been working on a USO contest, making spots, recording and producing interviews, and yesterday was the big winner call.
We got to tell a SPC with three kids that he gets to take his whole family on a trip to Chicago, up to the top of a skyscraper, to see a T. Rex at an awesome museum, to a performance of the Blue Man Group — and the astonishment gave way, not to whoops or bleeps, but to “Yes, sirs” and “Thank you for giving all service members the opportunity to enter something like this, sirs.”
That’s the bearing of a good winner. (And oh boy, I hope those kids have fun.)
“Did you get the shirt I sent?”
“That was you?! I love it. It’s packed. It’s going to be my sleep shirt.”
In the midst of the preoccupation with the battles of history, the battles of present wage on. I can have perfectly cheerful goodbye calls, all logical and upbeat until it comes time for the, “Keep your head down,” part.
That never gets any easier.
And the Hill 112 Memorial • D-Day, 2013
We went to see Albert’s tank today. It was right where he’d described it, on a roll in the topography almost too gentle to call a hill — and yet this vantage point afforded a view of 360 degrees of countryside. 7,000 men died in a struggle from July 10 to the middle of August, 1944, to claim the hill where Albert’s tank now sits.
You can find photos of that July, and a place to help with the next part of his plan on his Hill 112 website.
(The end of this story is my favorite. I could listen to it over and over. Maybe it’s the accent, because in news of small worlds and odd coincidences — he also just happens to be from a town or two over from where my dad was born. You really never know who you’re going to meet.)
This is why.
This morning in Vierville sur Mer, it was quiet. The wind buffeted the long grass on the bluffs, and the sun couldn’t compete. The waves rolled in upon Omaha Beach, and as soon as one would crash, the next would follow suit. In the eerie blank light of 69 years hence, you couldn’t help but stop and stare.
And imagine what was.
We, and all others who believe in freedom as deeply as we do, would rather die on our feet than live on our knees.
It’s almost impossible in this time of nano-processed attention, to think of an example of something that is celebrated and revered with full-throated and unabashed enthusiasm 69 minutes later, let alone 69 years.
But here in this tiny coastal town, with sturdy bisque-colored stone houses, now neatly in rows, it is. This day is.
Flags of all of the Allied countries whip in the wind and everywhere is a clatter of time-worn medals, awash in poppy-studded lapels, and ahush in remembrance.
In the past 24 hours, I’ve met a 93 year old who called the experience the “best in his life,” a man who traveled from Omaha Beach on D-Day +1, through Europe, to bring supplies to a liberated concentration camp, a group of school kids who’d practiced hours to make sure their performance of appreciative song and dance was perfect for the dwindling but hardy row of veterans, and a kid who was gathering veterans’ autographs on a glossy photo, starstruck like you’d expect to see a kid his age at an NBA game.
This. Because there is still reverence in this disposable world. Though may we never again experience that which inspired it, it is up to us all to save it.
To be good stewards of the stories. And each other.
Outside the first house liberated in all of France. It’s next to the Pegasus Bridge in Bénouville, and it’s where I met this man.
My birthday isn’t really my own. I share the date with the 156,000 Allied troops who landed in Normandy on June 6, 1944. I have always wanted to go and commemorate the day — and this year, when I’m turning the age that’s almost the precise halfway point between here and history, I am.
YOU ARE ABOUT TO EMBARK UPON THE GREAT CRUSADE TOWARD WHICH WE HAVE STRIVEN THESE MANY MONTHS. THE EYES OF THE WORLD ARE UPON YOU…I HAVE FULL CONFIDENCE IN YOUR COURAGE, DEVOTION TO DUTY AND SKILL IN BATTLE.
Those words from Eisenhower are on the Northern wall of the WWII Memorial; the same memorial I’ve accompanied two Honor Flight groups to see. I’m hoping that this short trip will afford the chance to understand a little bit more clearly, that great crusade that happened 69 years ago.
I’m also going in order to bring back images, audio, stories — and leave behind my respects paid. Because it doesn’t escape me, looking at the top picture, that that guy once offered Frank a drink in a field in Tennessee. It’s stories like this that make it so important to go. To remember. And to take Frankie, too.
Mr. Rogers and his ageless words of comfort has been everywhere this past devastating week. His reminder to “look for the helpers” is sage and poignant.
But while we’re all looking for the helpers, it’s a fine time to remember to look OUT for them, too. First responders make 20% of the salary a member of Congress does. The soldiers who rushed to aid at the finish line and do even more abroad? That can start at 10%.
And the firefighters who responded to the catastrophic explosion in Texas?
How many of us would still show up at our jobs if they quit paying us? And yet, that’s what we do to the people we count on to be there at the absolute worst of times.
Their work may be priceless, but it’s some pretty shameful math if we can’t see clear to at least attempt to pay them closer to what they’re actually worth.
Three years ago I went on a trip. I spent a weekend with a few dozen WWII vets, hearing their stories, watching them remember, and seeing what the honor of service really means. I came home to my own WWII vet, and an agonizing decision to make.
It turned out the decision wasn’t between do it or don’t — it was between fear and what I needed to do. I was at the recruiter’s office within the week. I was signed up and scheduled for a ship date to Basic Training within the month.
I was old enough at Basic that they called me “CID” thinking that I was a 21-Jump-Street style embedded secret investigator. I WISH. I left with notebooks full and the honor of being on the receiving end of this comment from a Drill Sergeant at our final dress uniform fashion show,
“Who are you? Have you been here the whole time? I ain’t never seen you.”
“Yeah, she’s the one who cries all the time.”
But in between tears, I learned how to call cadence (thank you musical theatre) and march a company of 200 (without ever figuring out my lefts and rights.) I was Student 1SG, Distinguished Honor Grad, Soldier of the Quarter, and promoted before my first rank was two years old.
Frank knew I had made it through and he got his final salute before I got my first duty assignment. You will never be able to convince me that the reason I got sent to Italy to be on the radio in the Army isn’t entirely because of the Colonel up there, directing the movement of his troop. I absolutely believe that because of him I was given a job where I could actually make a difference, a job where I met Ryan — a meeting that ultimately led me away from Afghanistan and now, that leads me on to a different path. Away from the Army.
A good officer knows how to best use his soldiers, and how to lead them. I followed orders. And I gave him my best.
Phrases I turned in along with my boots include, “Roger that,” “tracking,” “hooah,” “squared away,” “high speed,” and “too easy.” What I will keep with me is the motivation behind them, the people who taught me their meanings, and thoughts for everyone who still puts on the boots every day.
And I will forever keep what started as a trip, and ended as a journey.
(Though I never did find a “Humor in Uniform” anecdote to send to Reader’s Digest, I never got to see the WWE Salute to the Troops live, there was this — “Hey, did you hear about the one time I saluted a Sergeant INDOORS?” Ha. There’s some funny stuff in here.)
As a parting gift, they paid me for my unused leave. I’m sending it here.
Four people, stationed all over Europe, showed up to win a car this weekend. I’d called all of them to tell them they were in the running, telling them stories ranging from “I’m with Vehicle Registration,” to “I’m calling from Hot Hits Music Research.” I got to meet them all, put them on the air, and bring the whole event to radios all over the continent.
It was my last big mission, and it was a wonderful way to sign off. A big Saturday crowd, an exciting event, and unexpected recognition for a job I love doing. Finding people’s stories and using them to help make a big world, a big silence, feel smaller and friendlier.
And it didn’t escape my notice that hanging right next to my last assignment was a big “Frank’s Franks” sign. Because yes — I will take a sign as a sign.