McLean column: Remembering those who served, and have died
Navy Chief Bill Milton died a few months ago at the age of 92. A hospital corpsman (pronounced core man, not corpse man), he was the first Super Chief E9 in the Navy. A few years ago Bill and I became friends, with a common denominator of the Navy.
We occasionally went to the Pour House for lunch in Carbondale for a “Navy lunch” with other sailors. He regaled all of us with his stories of serving on the submarine Bowfin during WWII. He made a landing on the backside of Okinawa with Recon Marines when their corpsman developed appendicitis, leaving the sub for a temporary assignment that lasted much longer than planned. He also went to China with the Marines after the war ended to repatriate the Japanese soldiers who were left there.
On the Bowfin, he spent much of the war in the approach to Tokyo Harbor sending intelligence reports back on Japanese shipping. I cannot imagine anything more frightening than being stuck in a small submarine with some 90 other sailors while the Japanese Navy was trying their best to find and destroy you.
Bill spent 30 years in the Navy before retiring. He went on to a very successful career in the health industry. He was a charming and honorable man and will be missed.
In the past I thought that Memorial Day was only for those who died while serving on active duty. I kept a list of fallen squadron and shipmates who died while serving. However, Bill Hutton, a wise retired Army Command Sergeant Major told me that he thought, “Memorial Day is for those who passed. Veterans Day is for those still living.”
I agree. On Memorial Day we should honor all who served and have now passed away. I still will remember those on my list. F.C. Green shared a stateroom with me and was killed early in our Vietnam cruise. John Earl lived across the passageway and died on a night mission, as did John Golz. Terry Dennison was shot down on his very first mission over the North.
My friend Rick Amber, who was paralyzed from a bad ejection, did not pass away until he was 50. Certainly, his injuries shortened his life and he deserves to be honored and remembered.
My uncle Jack passed away a few years ago in his 90s. He also deserves honors for his service in the Pacific in WWII. An Army Captain, he received two purple hearts and a Bronze star for his actions during various landings.
The young soldiers who died in the Civil War defending Little Round Top in Gettysburg against a Confederate onslaught should still be honored. Those Marines who died at Belleau Woods should also be honored. All those who died in service in WWII and after should be honored.
Vietnam veterans dying today from the effects of Agent Orange deserve remembering, as do those veterans from all wars who commit suicide in alarming numbers.
I recently met another Navy Corpsman, Juan Roberto Madrid. He retired after 22 years of service. He served in Iraq and Afghanistan with Navy Seal Teams and Recon Marines. Undoubtedly, he saw a lot of tough combat.
We exchanged the now obligatory, “Thank you for your service.” It sounded hollow and we both commented how it has become a token mantra. It is better than calling us “baby killers” or other derogatory comments, but most people have no idea what our service was.
From my Navy experience, I understood some of what his service had been like. However, service in Afghanistan, Iraq, and some of the other places where he was deployed are hard to imagine. While those serving today have access to email and phones, living conditions have to be hard while in ground combat. It was certainly worse than we experienced on the carrier.
It was too soon after his deployments for him to speak of what he had seen. We did discuss how the military has become such a small part of American society. Only a small percentage of Americans actually know anyone who is currently serving or has recently served.
Most Americans had relatives who served in WWII, Korea, or Vietnam. Few even know anyone who served in Iraq or Afghanistan, much less someone who died in combat.
With the end of the draft came the end of our tradition of civilian service, where either volunteers or draftees came in, served their time and returned to their civilian life. Today, according to the DOD only 0.4 of one percent of Americans serve.
The VA reports that there are currently some 22 million veterans, about seven percent of the population in the country. With WWII, Korea, and Vietnam veterans dying at a high rate, that number is declining rapidly.
Memorial Day is just another holiday for most Americans. For those who have served, it is the day to remember lost comrades.
Roland McLean is a Carbondale-area resident, University of Colorado graduate, Navy veteran and retiree after more than 30 years in international construction. His column normally appears on the fourth Thursday of each month. Reach him at email@example.com.
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