Why This Vet Is Taking Veterans Day Off

Why This Vet Is Taking Veterans Day Off

Celebrate

The F-4 Phantom I

Some of you might already know this, but back in the Vietnam War Era, I spent four years in the Air Force. I joined right after high school and, in fact, was on my way to basic training two days after graduation. My mother was not pleased and had only grudgingly signed permission for me to enter the service.

Well. I was a kid. Other than an uncle who had served in the Korean War, I knew not a soul in the military. Now, you might think everyone joins for patriotic reasons. That’s almost never the case, really, and for me? I joined because when I was in the eighth grade and living in a small apartment complex with my mother and two sisters, one day I happened to be at the small pool there and what I saw was this: A young black woman who held herself with tremendous poise, doing marvelous dives into the pool. Everything about how she moved exuded self-assurance. I was awed.

I don’t believe she lived in the complex, but I do remember being mesmerized by her confidence. That’s something I seriously lacked, and I thought, “Wow! Where did she get that from?” I wanted to have what she had and later I learned she was on leave from the military. I don’t know what branch.

My immature brain made a snap decision. If what she demonstrated was how you obtained that kind of obvious confidence, then that’s what I wanted to do. And so I did.

Mind you, prior to leaving, I was just shy of being a 4.0 student. Yes, I got good grades and also worked on the junior high and later high school newspapers. Loved it, and would indeed later go on to work on daily newspapers for 17 years. But at the time? I couldn’t shake what that young woman demonstrated and so throughout my remaining school days I remained steadfast in my desire to join the service.

Not surprisingly, I wanted to work on whatever newspapers the Air Force had. Every base had one, and from my schooling I had sufficient training for that. Still, I had to take a test to get that position prior to basic training, and I passed it with flying colors. The recruiter assured me I would be assigned to work in Air Force communications. He lied. After basic training in Texas, where did I wind up? Working in a dull accounting capacity, most of that time hunched over filing cabinets. That’s where the Air Force put me, and I hated it with every fiber of my being. (I’ve always hated anything even remotely connected to math.)

Finally, though, some nine months into my service, a kind-hearted master sergeant marched me into the base commander’s office, and pleaded my case. I was subsequently reassigned. I worked on base newspapers, first at Westover Air Force Base in Massachusetts, then at Wiesbaden, Germany, and finally at Mildenhall near Suffolk in England. Mostly I wrote articles on various service people, policies, and the like. (Actually, once it went beyond that, but it’s too long a story to tell, other than to say it was not approved and got me transferred.)

But among the better assignments I got was to take a ride in an F-4 Phantom fighter jet, the primary fighter jet used during the Vietnam War. The assignment was a (pricey) publicity stunt, and prior to entering that tightly enclosed, tandem two-seat jet, I had to go through simulator training. Part of that training meant learning to eject from the jet within eight seconds. Not so easy; people in a jet are strapped in with what seems like dozens of harnesses. All of this happened when I was stationed in Germany, and it gave me status as the first woman ever to go up in one of those extraordinary jets.

(Mind you, my first flight in any kind of aircraft was the flight from my home in Cleveland, Ohio to Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, where basic training was conducted.)

Anyway, after training in that simulator and being fitted into a specialized uniform, I was off. An experienced pilot took the front, of course. I sat behind him. Takeoff was astonishingly fast; the Phantom could move at something like 1.9 miles per second. For me? Takeoff alone was breathtaking. But once high above the clouds, the pilot did gut-wrenching dips and swoops, upside-down twists and dives, and at that speed I experienced G-forces that nothing in my life has (thank God) replicated since. (By the way, that part was not included in the simulator training, at least not back then.)

For those of you who might not know, a G-force is essentially this: One G-force is roughly equal to your body weight on the ground. But as those G-forces move abruptly into high ranges, each additional G-force is like having more and more weight abruptly piled on. Two G-forces? Double your weight. Three? Triple it. You get the idea. But then those G-forces would abruptly shift down. I repeatedly felt like I had three people sitting on top of me, and then none. Then four. Then two. Then none.

This will play hell with your head and your stomach, and it did. Happily, I had a barf bag with me, and believe me I used it. (The pilot told me later that some pilots routinely hurl their stomach contents. I don’t know if that was a kind lie, but I’ve always clung to it, given how embarrassed I was at the time.)

Here’s the thing about that kind of inaugural flight, however. When it’s over and you land, a bottle of champagne is broken open and you’re expected to glug at least a little of it. In my case, I had a camera crew on the ground because, after all, this was something I was to write about. And not only would that piece go into the base newspaper, but it would go into the Air Force Times and the Stars and Stripes newspapers as well.

Happily, before I got out of the jet, an exceptionally understanding airman climbed up to where I was shakily beginning to descend the ladder to the ground, and he discreetly removed my barf bag. I don’t remember his name, but I’ll never forget his kindness.

I had other wonderful experiences, including riding in about five different military helicopters during a helicopter competition in England. (My stomach could handle that.) The camera crew that went with me managed to get us all kicked out of a hotel because they got drunk and rowdy. I was really pissed off and embarrassed, but it was what it was and we found other lodging.

When my four years were up, the military had somehow become a part of me, and yes, seemed to incorporate all the patriotism that I didn’t bring into it as a kid. Friends I made remain lifelong friends (some of them are on Facebook with me), and even today I get goosebumps during certain ceremonial activities. Only someone who spent time in the military can probably really understand that. My husband is one who does. I met him when I was stationed in Germany, though it took us eight more years before we got married — long after I’d left the Air Force.

I went on to make use of the GI Bill and graduated from the University of South Florida with honors and a degree in mass communications. One way or another I’ve always parlayed my love for words through that education and surely the experiences I had during my Air Force stint.

But the one thing I never had? Not ever. Not once: A day off on Veterans Day because I was always working. So today, this Veterans Day, anyway, by God, I am taking the day off. I didn’t do anything extraordinary as a service person, but I remain proud of what I did do — even though those of us who served during the Vietnam Era were not welcomed home with open arms. I’m sure a lot of you remember the times. Happily, they are different for returning service men and women now.

If you’re a vet, share your stories with me. And for heaven’s sake, dare to take the day off. Whatever you did or didn’t do during your term of service, and whatever your reasons for doing so, you gave up at least a few years of your life for whatever your country deemed necessary. As much as my my highest esteem is for those who served in combat roles, it does take more than people in war zones to make the U.S. military something that we always hope won’t be needed, but sadly, too often has been.

In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need a military. This is not that world. If you’re a veteran, take the day off. It shouldn’t be a day reserved just for people who work in banks, the post office or various government positions. It should belong to all of us.

The F-4 Phantom II (circa 2014)