Sunday, November 11, 2012

What is a Veteran?

What is a veteran? We see the commercials with guys in uniform and think, oh the benefits they get are sweet. They march in a lot of parades, and then some talk about the war and are so old that they lose track of the stories. Sometimes we even think of the crazy man up the street posed on his front porch with a rifle in case of foreign attack. Other times we think of a family member and memories of an aunt or uncle flying a flag to wish them luck overseas and a safe return. More ofteh than not they are lost in translation and definition and we think, "Oh, do I get the day off work? Yipee!"

The American GI has always been there. From the beginning of America, since we have gotten our independence we have made ourselves clear. We are a force to be reckoned with. Even after the Civil War, when Maximillion violated the Monroe Doctorine, both Union and former Confederates fought together to give Mexico it's dignity once again. It was because we are America. We rode on San Juan Hill, victorious against Spain and gaining Guam and Puerto Rico under the red, white, and blue. We were there in World War I, fighting in Europe against the Kaiser and helping to end the monopoly of monarchy, letting the world know that the US was there. In World War II we heard cheers when the helpless people were liberated from concentration camps and then raised the flag in Iwojima in that memorable photo. We were there in Korea, to say no to Communism as well as Vietnam. We returned in the Persian Gulf against Saddam to say genocide was wrong. And now we are in Iraq and Afghanistan saying there is a better way, it is called peace and democracy.

When I think of an American GI I think of someone who serves their country and is grateful and humble as a result of their duty. I think of my grandfather, who was in the navy during World War II and told a story about riding the subway with the Japanese troops once to my brother during a report. My grandfather confessed that while it was a daunting trip the Americans respected their so called enemy. My grandfather remarked that while they lost, they didn't complain. If anything they respected those who conquered them and wanted to do everything possible to rebuild their cities shattered and were willing to work with the Americans to do so. My grandfather always maintained that no one wanted to drop the bomb, and those women and children are still in his prayers. Aside from being a veteran he is a fighter all around. A three time cancer survivor and also escaping from a near fatal car wreck, my grandfather is ninety four and still swims and plays tennis. Although not as mobile as he once was, since his eye surgery he is driving without glasses and stayed up to read my book in a single night.

I also think of my other grandfather, whom I never met because he died before I was born. He was a master machinist and was eager to serve his country, however they were slow to draft him because they needed his expertise in building weapons. My grandfather was a part of the troops who dropped the bomb. After the war, he was in Japan doing guard duty. He saw women and children eating out of garbage cans in a city devistated. Whenever he could, my grandfather gave them fresh food, proving while he was a so-called enemy, they were still innocent people. One kid he was on duty with, a hot head, shot and killed a little old vagrant because he believed the man was stealing. Fined a pack of cigarettes, my grandfather was disgusted that he got away with murder and decked him breaking his nose. While the kid never got time in jail my grandfather let him know that he had abused his duty, and that as an American soldier his job as to watch out for people, even the so called enemy.

The American soldier is a protector in a great many ways. My great uncle Gregory, a bit of a lunitic, had been a part of the forces that liberated those imprisoned in the concentration camp. He had heard the cheering from those deemed unfit whether they be Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, Slavs or anyone else. One thing my uncle hated was the Nazi's. He always said that their mission was nothing but pure evil and we lived in a world where no one had the right to decide who belonged and who didnt. While my uncle loved dirty jokes and loved to talk about shooting Nazi's, he had a low tolerance for hate and prejudice. He worked side by side peacefully with blacks before the dawn of Civil Rights. He had fought a war with them. Why not?

Colin Powell once wrote an article for Time Magazine about who the American GI was. During his peace he told a touching story about a Japanese businessman, who unfortunately was interned with his family during World War II. The kid, ripped from his home because of his race and afraid, was crying in a corner. An American soldier, taking pity on the child, gave him a Hershey Bar. Years later, the businessman made friends with Colin Powell and as a gesture of good will, the General gave him a Hershey bar and the man became teary eyed.

American soldiers are heros, protectors, fighters for the forces of good in a world of evil. They are brave, humble, and always ready to take on the next challenge. Unfortunately some of them are also another thing: forgotten.

Yes, forgotten. When Vietnam broke out, many of the kids drafted were only eighteen. Poor for the most part, they knew nothing about the place where they were destined to meet their end except that it was on the map, somewhere near Japan and China, and had a lot of jungle. When they were fighting a war that many feel we had no place in there were people who called them baby killers. There were people who booed them. They served their country and they got the stones of hatred thrown in their faces. In my opinion, as I have seen the legless vets begging for change over the years I believe that America as a whole should be ashamed of themselves.

My uncle had a brother Bernie who was a Vietnam vet. A drug addict who dated prostitutes, he was an easily punchline for myself and my cousins as he carried on with his antics whether it was running from an angry pimp or peeing in public. However my mother said, "It is important to have compassion for him. He saw some terrible things in Vietnam. Things no one is the same after seeing. Be kind to him, there are others in his same boat."

Bernie and the rest of the Vietnam generation teach us a painful lesson, soldiers are soldiers called to do a job. While sometimes as Americans we might not support the war, we must support them. To us they are heros risking their lives overseas. They are in places that are foreign with enemies who have nothing to lose. They deserve our prayers, compassion, respect, and gratitude. When they step off the plane they deserve a hero's welcome. They deserve a thank you.

But then I know a veteran friend of mine who does know how to say thank you and leads the way. His name is Dave Rosner. He is a Lieutenant Colonel in the Marines. He is a Jewish Marine which is quite unusual. Dave uses his unique mixture of identities to pursue a career as a standup comedian. Dividing his time between active duty, USO Shows, and a career in NYC he produces shows for veteran's hospitals. Some of the comedians have served while others like myself have not. Nonetheless we all walk away with tremendous respect for the men and women who have served our country. Whenever they served, wherever they served they are always first and foremost in our hearts. They also deserve a good laugh and comedy show like anyone else, and Dave knows that. Dave has also been a good friend, who got me to shop my book around in order to be published when I didn't know what the next step was. A regular talking head on TV, check out Dave's book Full Metal Foreskin about his adventures as a Jewish Marine.

Of course much like my friend Dave I have friends who have gone through officer training like Darren Joyce from my high school. A hockey player and champion boxer, he is using his expertise at math and his good heart not only to protect others but to lead heroically. While possessing a humble attitude outside the boxing ring, he is probably hell to reckon with on the battlefield. I am not complaining. He is a friend in real time and a fighter where it counts. I am thrilled he is in charge of protecting me. In his mix is Jeff Kohler and Bethany Kaufman, both graduates of Annapolis. Both hardworking on the field and off, they are also in officer training as we speak. Keeping America safe and taking our security to the next level. When they are on the job we can sleep, end of story.

I also see my friend Keith Godwin and his wife, a former Army bootcamp instructor making a difference in the community. Keith, a former Marine who used to guard the border between the Koreas, puts on comedy show at drug rehabs, hospitals, and churches. His service in the corps has shown him that the world is not that big. Why not? I always tease him about his wife kicking his butt, but a holy woman she is also a minister. Both use their talents for good and to spread laughter and hope. Both are the epitome of service.

In that mix I cannot forget my friend Rick Carino, a former navy man who once gave me a joke about going down under for a show for the armed forces. Rick is the poster boy for the can do attitude of the armed forces. Once I did a show of his in Connecticut and Rick did everything from fill the place to build the stage. I wondered how he had the wherewithall to carry on such a mission. Then I remembered when one lives under water for months at a time they can do anything. Rick also has a very postive attitude, one of perseverence. Once I was complaining and Rick told me to get over it and get a better attitude. He didn't validate my stupidity, true friends never do. Another time I was going through a rough patch, one that tested our friendship. I apologized and Rick told me it was water under the submarine and time to move on. It was time for the next mission. It was time to keep on going, the attitude that has kept America the land of the free and the home of the brave.

In time the face of the American GI is changing. The service academies are allowing women in. Male leaders have seen the big picture and female leaders zeroing in on the specifics and being passionate about the mission, a fluid mixture to make us even stronger in both war and peace. Also, the tyrranical Don't Ask Don't Tell has been lifted. This means the military now welcomes LGBTQ people eager to serve diligently who want nothing more than to protect this country and to help those who have been abused by dictators around the world. It means people like my friend Martin can not only march in tomorrow's parade, but can also be who he is while we salute him and thank him for his bravery and service.

Tomorrow we must thank all the brave men and women for their service. We must salute them. We must say thank you.

We must also pray for those like my former classmate Russell Kurtz who lost his life in Iraq. While his holiday is in May, he was still a part of the effort, a part of the solution to make this world a better place.

We must also remember that tomorrow is not a day off or another chance to sleep in. It is a chance to show our gratitute. It is a chance to remember that there are a lot of eighteen year old kids who lost their lives so that we can complain about the president, vote, and use our first amendment that we all freely throw around and thanklessly abuse. When we complain about how we don't like the president or the laws or whatever, we seem to forget those young men who fought in Europe, the Pacific, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan. Now let's take a moment to remember how we got our rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Let's remember who fought overseas and gave us the strength as a whole to say that monarchs abusing power and a dictator deciding who was fit to be a part of the human race and who was not based or religion is wrong. Let us remember how they brought those lessons back because they fought together and now as a nation we say racism, sexism, and descrimination against LGBTQ people is wrong. By being brave they passed the gift on to us so we can use it day to day as Americans. So we can say yes we can, meet challenges, and make it through anything.

It is a chance to remember what a veteran is.

Love April
I Came, I Saw, I Sang: Memoirs of a Singing Telegram Delivery Girl

Come to my book signing Thursday November15
Symposia Books
510 Washington St
7 pm
Portion of proceeds go to the victims of Sandy
See you there xo


  1. beautiful piece...thanks april for a tribute to your friends who serve and continue to serve.

  2. Aww thank you Champ. I call Champ cause you da man, you the best!