The Vet

I slammed the car door and ran across the parking lot, stamping the slush off of my boots before entering the McDonald’s.  The thermometer was hovering around eight degrees and a cup of steaming hot coffee sounded really good.  I had my tablet tucked under my arm, thinking I would spend a few minutes catching up on my e-mails before proceeding to the office.

I slid into a booth and booted the tablet, looking around the dining room while I waited for the coffee to cool a bit.  Several tables were occupied with people grabbing a quick breakfast before starting their day.  Sitting on the far side of the room I saw an elderly gent sitting alone, staring out the window.  He was dressed for the weather, displaying a heavy sweater over a flannel shirt.  A bulky coat lay on the seat next to him.  On his head, he sported a baseball cap.

He must have felt my attention, because he suddenly turned his head and looked at me.  I offered a smile which was returned with a blank stare.  That is when I noticed that the ball cap was emblazoned with USS Keppler DD765.  A veteran I surmised and decided that, before I left, I was going to thank him.

As I discarded my coffee cup, I walked over to his table and was again met with a gaze devoid of any emotion.  “Judging from your cap” I began, “it would appear that you are a veteran.”

“It would, and I am” came the terse response.

“Well I would just like to thank you” I said, extending my hand.

He remained silent for a minute, looking me over with a cautious eye before finally deciding to return the gesture.  Grabbing my hand with a firm grip, he said simply “Much appreciated”.

“Did you see combat” I asked.

“I was career Navy” he replied.  I saw combat during the Korean Conflict and again in Vietnam” he offered.

“Wow” I said.  “Were you ever injured?”

“Not so you’d notice” he said.  “All wounds aren’t physical”.

My interest had been peaked.  “Would it be OK if I sat down” I asked.

“Suit yourself” he said.  “It’s a free country.”

I slid into the seat opposite him and said “It is indeed, and I suspect you had something to do with that.” For the first time, the hint of a smile played around the corners of this mouth.

“I like to think so” he said.  “Names John.  John Carter.”

“Pleased to meet you John.  I’m Bob Stanfield.  I guess the Keppler was your ship?”

“Yup.  She was a destroyer.  Spent over two enlistments on her.  An onery bucket of bolts she was.  But she always brought me back.”

“What did you do” I inquired.

“Whatever I was told.  That was the Navy way” he said, a little twinkle appearing in his eyes.  “Seriously, I was a crewman on one of the gun mounts.”

“That was kind of dangerous, wasn’t it?”

“Son” he said.  “There were no safe jobs.  We were there to fight.  Didn’t make no difference if you were a gunner or a cook.  There was no place to hide.”

Feeling a little embarrassed, I mumbled “I guess that makes sense.  When did you go to Vietnam?”

Newport was our home port.  We left in October 66 and sailed through the Panama Canal and into Pearl Harbor.  We were only there a week before deploying to Yokosuka Japan and on to the Gulf of Tonkin for plane guard.

“What was plane guard” I asked

“We were there in support of the aircraft carriers, tasked with fishing their pilots out of the ocean if they had to ditch.  We pulled one out in December of 66 and got another one in January of 67.”  We also provided gunfire support for the allies fighting on shore.  We would destroy specific land targets that had been identified and interrupt Viet Cong troop movements into South Vietnam.  However, while there, we also damaged or destroyed about 50 Communist junks.”

“Was your ship ever hit” I asked?

He sat silent for a moment before responding.  “Yeah” he said softly.  “It was.  A land battery scored a hit on us.  Blew up the gun mount right next to mine.  There was fire and explosions and screaming.  I remember most the screaming and not being able to do anything.  We lost nine good men that day.  Friends and buddies.  Never quite got over that.  But, it could have been me just as easy.  It was one of my bigger losses.”

“There were others” I inquired.

Again, a pause, and then he looked at me with hurt in his eyes.  Finally he said “I didn’t suffer my biggest loss until I returned stateside and found I had lost respect.  Was a time I couldn’t have worn this cap without fear of verbal or physical confrontation.  Somehow, the war had been blamed on me.  It turned me bitter and resentful.  I had offered my life and came home to that.  I was spit on once.”

I sat there in disbelief, not knowing what to say.  I mean, I had admired what this man had done before, but now,  I was looking at him in a whole new light.  His war had not ended with his tour of duty.  He had continued to fight it for a lifetime.

I rose slowly from my seat, my eyes never leaving his.  I was overcome with a rising sense of sorrow mixed with disgust for what he had endured.  Here, before me was a hero.  Here was the reason I could run into McDonald’s this morning.  Here was a man that had answered the call when asked and was punished for it. 

Words continued to escape me.  Finally I said “Well John, let me just say that in my eyes, you are a great American and I am proud to have had an opportunity to meet you.”  As an afterthought, I threw him a sloppy salute.

I was surprised when he returned it with a quick gesture and said “Son, it is still the greatest country on earth.  Don’t ever forget it.  There are tough times and then occasionally, there are mornings like this one.  Thank you.”

 

About oldmainer

I am a retired manager living in Southern Maine and a would be writer of poetry, narratives, short stories, and random opinions, and that's how Oldmainer was born. Recently, I decided to try an experiment. I added photography to the mix, using only a cheap cell phone with a limited camera and the editing software that came with it, and added the blog site Inklings at poormanspoet.wordpress.com to showcase the results. So, feel free to use whatever you find interesting or worthy, but please honor the terms of my copyright when and if you do. They may not be much, but they are still a piece of me. I appreciate your checking me out and hope that you find something that will encourage a return visit. Thanks for stopping by.
This entry was posted in Aging, Death, Fiction, Hate, History, Life, Memories, Military, Self Esteem, Tribute, War and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The Vet

  1. quiall says:

    Because of people like John we live countries we can call free. I for one will never forget. My father fought in WWII in an RCAF bomber. Thank you for posting this.

    Like

  2. Theresa says:

    Thank you for this beautiful story; my father served in the Navy in WWII. Blessings to you and yours in the New Year…

    Like

  3. msmcword says:

    My late father was in the Army during WW. II. I never told him that I was proud of his military service-I wish I had.
    Now whenever I see a military person I thank them for their service (I don’t think that any of us will ever be able to thank them enough).

    Nancy

    Like

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