My dad never conveyed to me that he felt he deserved any special consideration for his 23 years of military service. Certainly he had sacrificed: three extended tours of duty away from us. But perhaps because he had never been under fire during the Korean, War, or in Thailand, during the Viet Nam War, he didn’t feel he had any unique claim on the nation’s gratitude, or on whatever platitudinous phrase politicians generally trot out for these sorts of holidays.
As I recall, when he spoke of the military what he talked about most readily was the social dimension of his service. He had joined the military at age 17, not long after President Harry Truman, under pressure from Civil Rights organizations, had issued executive order 9981 establishing equality of treatment and opportunity in the US Armed Forces. And although in some respects the promised equality of treatment was never fully realized for my dad (he never received the radio training that the recruiter assured him he’d get) the service was a ticket away from the hard life of a sharecropper’s son in a small segregated Arkansas town and into a world that was multiracial and—to the extent that the children of officers and enlisted men and women attended the same schools—corrosive of class differences. We—my brother, sisters and I—never felt inferior to anyone else: a sense of self we owed both to my mom and dad.
Nonetheless it is one of life’s ironies that the Cold War military from the 1950s through the 1970s provided a concrete sense of what life in a more egalitarian society might look like. I’m not sure, but this may be one of the reasons he continued to serve for as long as he did. I do know that he embraced an egalitarian vision that we should not only memorialize but also strive to realize.