As we get ready to celebrate another Veterans Day, I wanted to do a column this year on the power of camaraderie among veterans as they transition from their tour of duties back into civilian life.
According to an article written by Tom Wolfe on www.military.com: “There is nothing in the civilian workforce that can approximate the bonding that occurs in the wardroom, ready room, or foxhole. Military personnel in those environments put up with much hardship — long hours, stressful working conditions, danger to personal safety, separation from loved ones, and more. However, because they are all in it together, they get through it. This mutual self-sacrifice, teamwork, and covering each other’s six contribute to individual bonding, unit cohesion, and, ultimately, the camaraderie in question.”
Does Wolfe compare military camaraderie with any other profession? According to his article, “Other than perhaps the professions of law enforcement, firefighting, and emergency medicine (notice the common denominator), it would be difficult to find a civilian occupation that approximates the conditions of the foxhole.
“It follows therefore that finding the military version of camaraderie in a civilian occupation is almost impossible. Some people do get close however and often it is simply a matter of time. Many military-to-civilian career changers will tell you that although they did not find the camaraderie and esprit de corps initially in their civilian jobs, it did start to develop in the first 12 to 18 months of employment.
“This delay is due in part to the fact that unlike in the military where you are quickly welcomed ‘to the club,’ in the civilian sector you have to earn this membership over time. You might also have to take the initiative.”
So, let me share a story with you that happened recently to my younger brother George and, perhaps, it shows firsthand the strength of the bond between veterans.
George served in the Army and was stationed in Okinawa in 1970 for 18 months. During that time, he became buddies with one James L. Smith who went by the moniker “Smitty.” George was the battalion artist/draftsman and Smitty was the battalion mail clerk.
During off hours, George played baseball for the Army team, the Gunners. All branches of the military had a baseball team and there was an intense rivalry among the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines.
During a particularly tough series against the Marines, the Gunners found themselves down one run with no hits in the ninth inning. Finally, they got a walk, a hit, and scored one run.
It was a tie game with one out, forcing the Marines to bring the infield in. They proceeded to walk the next batter, setting up a force play.
The Army team countered by sending in a pinch hitter, my brother George. George knew he would have to perform some sort of miracle (a quick Hail Mary prayer may have helped). The ball was pitched at lightning speed, the bat was swung, and the ball sailed right over the shortstop’s head — game over, Army won!
Smitty was back in the barracks that evening and George tossed him the home-run ball, saying, “It’s for you, man!”
After they left Okinawa, Smitty went through some rough times as he was from Lake Charles, Louisiana, and his home had been destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Although they kept in touch, George hadn’t seen Smitty in person since they boarded the jet from Okinawa going home.
George was going to turn 70 in October, and his kids wanted to do something unique for him. They decided to contact Smitty. They sent him an airline ticket to fly to New York to surprise George at a birthday celebration.
Smitty hadn’t flown since his flight home from Okinawa, and he had never seen Manhattan. It happened to be on Columbus Day weekend, which is sort of a prelude to what New Year’s Eve is like in the city, so Smitty was thrilled. His comment during all the tours they took him on was “It’s like Grand Canyon. You have to see it to believe it.”
And now back to the camaraderie part of this article among veterans. The bond is always there, no matter how many years pass, how much lives change, and how much distance separates veterans.
How do I know? When Smitty arrived at the birthday dinner, he handed George the ball he had hit for the winning run in Okinawa. He had saved it almost 50 years, even going through losing his home.
It had been and will continue to be a symbol of a bond that can’t be broken.