Like a lot of other Americans, he gets a lump in his throat every year about this time.

Unlike most of them, however, pride has little to do with it.

He hadn't actually wanted to go into the military in the first place. He rebelled against it for a long time, mainly because it had been his parents' idea at a time when he - like all teenagers - spent most of his time thumbing his nose at his parents' ideas. 

It was his life, by golly, and he was going to live it his way... even if it meant making the two people whose opinions mattered most to him angry in the process.

But he soon found that living life “his way” was no way to live. His job as a midnight watchman barely paid enough to keep up with the rent on the little one-room apartment he'd moved into - never mind ever earning enough to afford going to college or getting married. 

And he didn’t even have a car of his own, so Mom and Dad had to drive him halfway across the county to work and back five days a week.

So he swallowed his pride and signed up for a hitch in the same branch his father had served in over 20 years before. If he was going to do it at all, there may as well be some sense of tradition about it.

Weeks later he bid his mother and father and high school sweetheart goodbye, and boarded a plane bound for San Antonio and basic training. Or, as the trainees preferred to call it, “Hell.”

The first morning had been the toughest. He overslept - he hadn't heard the recorded bugle reveille being piped over the barracks loudspeaker -  and when he finally opened his eyes there was the drill sergeant, standing over him with a vein the size of Rhode Island popping out of his forehead, calling him names that the baddest of the bad dudes he had known back in the old neighborhood wouldn’t have used. 

Talk about a “rude awakening…”

But, in shorter time than he might have expected, he grew accustomed to the new lifestyle. What’s more, he actually came to like it. And as 30 strangers who at first hadn’t been able to stand one another drew closer and became one of the top trainee squads on the base, he somehow managed to become one of the four or five that the rest looked to for leadership. 

Boy, wouldn't THAT have been a kick in the head to the guys back home...

By the time he had completed tech school and arrived at his first active duty station - located in one of the historic and picturesque locations in all of Europe, as it happened - he felt as if maybe he had found his place in the world, after all. 

So, naturally, the world quickly fell apart around him.

He was in the midst of upgrade training as a telecommunications specialist - sending, receiving, coding and decoding messages to and from the trouble spots of the world. It wasn’t exactly James Bond stuff; in fact it was all pretty tedious. But he was proud to serve.

One day his training instructor gave him some materials to study during his off-duty hours. Some of the material was classified and wasn’t supposed to leave the work center - but the instructor never said so. Worse, the material had not been properly stamped as “classified,” so there was no way of knowing without being told.

His roommate, another telecom specialist, found the training materials on the desk in their room and recognized some as classified. The roommate did exactly what he was supposed to do and notified the squadron commander. 

But the airman never was given a chance to explain how they’d come to be in his room in the first place. Instead, an arrest was made - handcuffs, drawn guns, the whole bit - and he was taken to the base police headquarters.

The squadron’s first sergeant - a hard-drinking, foul-mouthed sort who had never liked him much in the first place because he was quiet and relatively clean-cut and wasn’t a part of the first sergeant's Friday Night Drunken Carousing Gang - wanted to charge him with espionage. There were terrorists in the area, after all, who would have paid big bucks to get their hands on that sort of information. Who better to make an example of than THIS guy?

But there was no evidence to support the charge. There couldn’t have been, because it simply wasn’t true.

So the company commander settled for a charge of failure to obey the orders of a superior - the “superior” in this case being the same training instructor whose negligence had gotten him into this mess in the first place, and had subsequently lied about his role in the affair in order to save his own miserable hide. 

Even that charge couldn’t be proven - the young airmen had passed two lie detector tests and had produced testimony from other co-workers regarding the training instructor’s negligence - but an example still had to be made. 

So they gave him a General Discharge under Honorable Conditions - but listed the reason for the discharge as “misconduct” and stripped him of any benefits he would have been entitled to as a veteran. The training instructor who had really been at fault - and was a drinking buddy of the first sergeant besides - got a promotion. 

Life really does stink sometimes...

He appealed the discharge for a year or so. He didn’t want back in, not after everything he had been through those last couple of months; he just wanted to clear his record, and get back at least some of the benefits he had earned - and maybe his peace of mind. 

But the Air Force, the Veterans’ Administration, even the U.S. Government all turned a deaf ear.

So he finally gave up and went on with his life. He got a job, married his high school sweetheart, and eventually got that college degree he’d wanted so badly. He managed to earn some degree of success in his chosen career field.

In time, he even managed to regain some of the pride he had felt about serving in the military, despite the way that service had ended. 

And why not? After all, he hadn’t been the one who screwed up.

But every Veterans Day, as the people in his hometown find ways to express their gratitude to those who have served, there is for him only a persistent feeling of pain.

It hurts to know that whatever contributions he might have made in the service of his country were destroyed by the stupidity of another man. 

It hurts to think that the government he served thinks him unworthy of its gratitude. 

It hurts to realize that, whenever the names of local veterans are recalled, officially his name can never be included among them.

He has managed, over time, to live with the pain and the humiliation. He has continued to show support for the military, in spite of the fact that it showed none for him. 

He has even learned to forgive the man at whose feet the fault for it all really lies. No sense letting his own soul fester over the actions of another.

What he has NEVER learned to accept - what he likely will never be able to accept - is the sense of failure. Even though that failure was, in all honesty, not his own…

(Copyright © 2021 by John A. Small)