By Bob Drynan
Korean War Memorial, Washington D.C.
A patrol moves silently through the perimeter. The darkness shrouds their movement and the cascading rain muffles their progress. It’s a large patrol, a dozen men, led by a sergeant who has been in the line for eight months. Occasionally lightning in the distance glints off the shinny surfaces of their rain gear. They still move single file, led by the point man that has been on patrols for the past year, and knows his way through the mine field by rote.
Back in the file, a man shifts his weapon to the opposite hand and takes the arm of the soldier in front of him, a newcomer to the unit, and guides him through the process of avoiding the deadly defensive weapons.
They emerge from the mine field and enter a new danger zone. The sergeant taps the man in front, signals him to stop and pass the word on, puts a hand on his radioman to halt him and moves back through the patrol signaling them to spread out. He reaches the newbie and notes the hand of the veteran on his arm, nods and moves on.
The sergeant returns to the middle of the formation and whispers loudly, “Move out.”
Each man has assumed his rehearsed position, knows his areas of responsibility in the tactical sweep. Knows where the next man is located, the location of the men who will cover his back, and that of the men whose back he will cover. They all rely on the point man’s ability to spot trouble and on the rearmost to cover their back trail.
This is an infantry patrol. It could be Virginia in 1863, Mindanao in 1901, the Argonne in 1918, Guadalcanal in 1942, Korea in 1950, Vietnam in 1968 or Afghanistan in 2013. Small unit tactics change, adapt to technology, geography, and idiosyncrasies of the adversary. But one thing has never changed. The members of the patrol develop a deep sense of cohesion; each member relies on the others, as the others rely on him.
The story could be of fighter pilots and wingmen. It could be AA gunners on warships. It could be a radar technician, or an electronics specialist in a CIC. It could be a supply sergeant or an armorer in a support role. It could be a nurse in a field hospital.
Wherever, whenever, they were rigorously trained and perhaps at some time subjected to the stresses of the real thing, the varmint. But most important each received a responsibility the failure of which could have catastrophic consequences for those depending upon him; and consequences for him, if others upon whom he depended failed in their responsibilities to him. That experience changed all of them forever.
* * *
At coffee one morning in Ajijic, a poll among American retirees produced the following results: 4 served in the Army, 2 in the Marine Corps, 1 in the Navy and 2 in the Air Force. One did not serve in our military, but he had held a critical job with access to nuclear secrets, prohibiting his exposure to military service. In our Lakeside community for a large share of our male population and many of our women, the preceding anecdote, in training, or within reach of the varmint, was a seminal event. It reflected in the remainder of our lives: the workplace, among friends, in the way we raised our children.
Salute our veterans on November 11th. Their freedoms are not just a birthright; they have earned them.