I began this Veterans Day with the most mundane of activities -- by taking my car to the shop for repairs. After turning in the vehicle, I was ushered to a waiting area while a courtesy shuttle was arranged to take me to my follow-on destination. I was joined there by about a dozen other customers, most of whom were gathered around the tables and counters where free coffee and croissants were being dispensed. My eyes were drawn to a solitary young black man seated away from the others, ear buds in place, adjusting his iPhone. He was dressed in work clothes, with a coat and knit cap appropriate for the rainy, cold weather typical of Upstate New York this time of year. There was nothing off-putting about this individual, but the dynamics of human interaction prevalent in the waiting area had physically isolated him from the other patrons, who were, like myself, exclusively white (the reasons behind this being a discussion for another time.) The shuttle driver arrived, and three customers -- me, another white middle aged man from the same town as me, and the black man -- got in the vehicle to be driven to our respective destinations.
It was a dark, overcast rainy morning, and the driver -- an elderly white male -- commented on the traffic. "There's supposed to be a parade today," he observed. "They may have some routes downtown blocked off. I might have to make some detours. I apologize for the inconvenience."
"That's right," the other passenger from my hometown chimed in. "It's Veterans Day. Do you think they'll have the parade because of the rain?"
As if on cue, we drove past two individuals dressed up in khaki paramilitary garb, with blue berets and polished combat boots sporting white laces, walking in the other direction. "There's your answer," the driver noted. "There's two veterans right there."
The black man, seated next to me, chuckled. "Those aren't military uniforms," he said. "Probably firefighters dressed up for an honor guard."
"Or cops," I said, noting the patches sewn into the shoulders of the uniforms.
I looked at the black man. "I take it you were in the service?" I asked.
"Army. Just got out. And you?"
"Marines," I answered. "A long time ago."
The driver was approaching my destination. I held out my hand to the black man. "Thank you for your service," I said, as he shook it.
"You, too," he replied.
I got out of the vehicle, and shut the door. Neither the driver nor the other passenger said a word.
Something about this encounter stuck with me, and when I got home I went upstairs to my bedroom, and opened up the top drawer of my dresser, where I kept a wooden box filled with mementos. I soon found what I was looking for -- a 1945 Mercury Dime. I examined it for a moment, before putting it back in its place. I then sat down and allowed myself to reflect on the importance of that coin was to me, especially on a day like today.
Veterans Day began its life as a national holiday under a different name -- "Armistice Day," reflecting its status as a time to reflect on the service and sacrifice of those who were called to duty in the "War to end all Wars" -- the First World War. Later, when that particular nomenclature became moot with the advent of the Second World War (followed by a series of additional conflicts which seem to highlight the reality that war will never end), and the term "Armistice" was replaced with "Veterans", indicating an apparent acknowledgement that, as a nation, we would not be celebrating the cessation of conflict, but rather its inevitability.
The holiday, as constituted by an Act of Congress in 1954, was originally intended to celebrate American Veterans of all wars. As I had indicated to the young Army veteran in the shuttle, I had served in the Marines "a long time ago" -- from 1984 to 1995, to be precise. I have always been proud of my military service, especially so given the branch I went into, which is known to be particularly selective and demanding. I had entered service in a time of relative peace. Two minor "wars" -- Lebanon and Grenada -- had been concluded prior to my coming on active duty, and while the risk of the Cold War with the Soviet Union becoming "hot" was something we trained for constantly, there was no active conflict underway when I took my oath of service.
I was in the Soviet Union, serving as a weapons inspector, when the invasion of Panama occurred in 1989, and like my fellow officers so deployed, I lamented the fact that I had "missed my war." But I was wrong -- Saddam Hussein invaded Iraq in August 1990, and by December of that year I was deployed in Saudi Arabia, part of a force of some 750,000 American military personnel assembled to confront the Iraqi dictator and liberate Kuwait. In January 1991 America began bombing Iraq, and the war for which I had trained for, and had secretly wished would occur, was underway. I had earned my right to be among those celebrated on Veterans Day.
The Gulf War, as that conflict became known, was a short, bizarre war, and my involvement in it no less so -- I was placed under arrest as I was trying to board my flight to Saudi Arabia, I was arrested in the middle of the war, and I was threatened with arrest at the time of my departure from Saudi Arabia. The first brush with being forcibly detained came at MacDill Air Force Base, in Florida, where I had been sent for a week in late December 1990 to get briefed on sensitive intelligence programs before deploying to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. I had originally been scheduled to leave the Marines in September 1990, for personal reasons, but had my service voluntarily extended so that I could serve during the anticipated conflict with Iraq. I had made plans prior to this extension of service to travel to the former Soviet Union after my discharge in order to conduct research for a scholarly paper I was writing for an academic journal, and was in communication with contacts in Soviet Georgia to help facilitate this trip (the paper was on the ethnic unrest in the Georgian Republic of Abkhazia.)
I had closely coordinated with the responsible Marine Corps Special Security Office (SSO) about these plans on the grounds that, as someone who had recently had access to sensitive intelligence information, I had an obligation to keep my government full appraised as to my future plans, especially if they involved contact with the Soviet Union. When I was informed that I would be extended on active duty and deployed to Saudi Arabia, I needed to communicate with my Georgian contacts to put off my trip, which had been scheduled to take place in January. I told my SSO, who approved my making the phone call. I was unable to get through (making a call from the United States to Georgia in 1990 was no easy task), and was still trying to make contact when I arrived at MacDill. I made several calls, always getting in contact with a Georgian operator who was unable to complete the connection. The last attempt was made the morning of my scheduled departure.
Prior to boarding the flight to Saudi Arabia, I was designated a classified courier and issued a loaded .45 caliber pistol and a package of Top Secret documents for delivery to CENTCOM headquarters in Riyadh. Before the plane could take off, however, I was pulled from the flight, had my weapon and the classified material taken away from me, and escorted to an office in the terminal, where an agent from the Criminal Investigations Division read me my rights and questioned me about my phone calls to "Moscow." I explained that I had never called Moscow, but rather Tbilisi (the capital of Georgia), and that these calls had been approved in advance by my SSO. After a quick phone call to Quantico, Virginia to confirm what I had told him, the CID agent returned my weapon and the classified package with an admonition not to try and make any calls from Saudi Arabia. It was a very inauspicious start to my war.
I was initially assigned as a desk officer to an entity within Central Command (CENTCOM, the US Military headquarters which oversaw the war) known as the "Battle Damage Assessment" (or BDA) cell. One of the strangest incident of the war, for me, occurred shortly after the war began, when I was summoned by General Waller, the deputy commander of CENTCOM, to a meeting with Prince Turki, the head of Saudi Intelligence. Prince Turki briefed me on intelligence which indicated Saddam Hussein planned to travel to Basra for a meeting with his commanders, and included a description of the building he was going to be staying in. I was ordered by General Waller to "Locate the building in question, and turn it over to the Air Force for targeting" -- in short, to kill Saddam. Working with Air Force photographic interpreters, I managed to identify three suspect buildings, two of which were eventually bombed on the day Saddam was supposed to be travelling. The reports turned out to be false -- Saddam never travelled to Basra, and the buildings hit were most likely civilian homes. I do not know what, if anything, became of the occupants of the two buildings that were struck, but I do know they were deemed to be occupied at the time they were designated as targets. This incident, combined with the role played by myself and the BDA cell in helping approve a bomb shelter located in the Amiriyah district of Baghdad for an attack which ended up killing over 400 civilians, has forever darkened my perception of "precision bombing."
As the war progressed, so, too, did my mission, and soon I found myself involved in helping plan and implement counter-SCUD missile operations alongside a variety of allied Special Operations units, including the British SAS, Navy SEALs, and the Army's Delta Force. This new role was not without controversy -- when I challenged General Schwarzkopf, the commander of CENTCOM, over his announcement that the US Air Force had destroyed a number of SCUD missiles, I was relieved of my duties (only to be brought back on when it turned out I had been correct.) Later, in mid-February 1991, when I met with Delta Force about their operations in western Iraq to interdict Iraqi SCUD missiles, I was accused by General Schwarzkopf of trying to start my own war, placed under arrest at Delta Force's forward operating base and detained until the next available flight, at which point I was unceremoniously returned to Riyadh, where I was released with the understanding that I would stay put for the remainder of the conflict.
Once the ceasefire took effect, I began planning a study of weapons effects in selected engagement zones where the Iraqi Republican Guard had been deployed in an effort to ascertain what weapons -- the Air Force's bombs, or the Army's tanks -- were responsible for actually killing Iraqi armor vehicles in the designated areas of interest. The need for this study was born out of the controversy surrounding the analysis behind the degradation of specific Iraqi units, the Republican Guard paramount among them, prior to the launching of the ground assault. General Schwarzkopf had indicated that these units needed to be below 50% combat effectiveness before the attack could begin, but as the air campaign dragged on, we at BDA were not able to notice the requisite amount of destruction taking place. The Air Force stepped in, claimed we in the BDA cell were incompetent, and came up with their own formula which assigned a certain percentage of material destroyed for every unit of bombs dropped -- regardless of what we in BDA were seeing when examining post-strike satellite photographs. Soon, following an aerial bombardment which dropped thousands of tons of bombs on the Iraqi defenses, the formal assessment put all the designated Iraqi units at below 50%, and the green light was given for the ground assault. Soon after crossing the front lines, Army units encountered Iraqi Republican Guard forces that were fully intact, and were subsequently compelled to fight a series of one-sided engagements where hundreds of Iraqi tanks and armored vehicles were destroyed. It was my intention to grid off the battlefield and do a thorough evaluation of what exactly killed the Iraqi vehicles that littered the desert. This concept was, to say the least, unpopular with the Air Force.
My plans to travel to the battlefield to conduct an initial reconnaissance were put on hold due to an outbreak in fighting on March 2, 1991, between US Army forces and retreating Iraqi Republican Guard forces. I remember watching video in the Command Operations Center showing Apache attack helicopters destroying Iraqi tanks with Hellfire missiles, and wondering aloud "Where are all these tanks coming from? I thought the Air Force destroyed them all?" Two days later, upon returning from a liaison visit to the Third Army headquarters (General Patton's old outfit, and at the time responsible for the overall ground attack to liberate Kuwait) where I finalized the ground battle damage assessment concept, I was informed I would be leaving Saudi Arabia that evening. I was ordered to turn in my gear and report to the air terminal, where I would be issued a ticket home.
It was an unceremonious end to my war, made even more so by an incident that occurred when I turned in the M-16 rifle and ammunition I had been issued when I was sent forward to work with the Special Operations forces. CENTCOM's armory was run by the Air Force, and I had been given two magazines with 20 rounds of ammunition each, along with a rifle I had never before fired. Trained by the Marines to never go into combat with a weapon that has not been "zeroed", or adjusted to your individual specifications, I took the time to "battle zero" my weapon, firing nine rounds in three 3-round "groups" at a range of 25 yards into an improvised paper-plate target in order to properly adjust the sights to my needs. When I turned in the weapon, I had to count out my ammunition, only to be confronted by an irate Air Force Major who ran the armory as to why I was nine rounds short. I tried to explain the concept of "zeroing" a weapon, only to be asked under what authority I had fired the ammunition in question. "Yours," I said, "when you issued me the rifle and sent me into a forward area." It took a visit to a Marine General, who understood precisely what I was talking about, before the Major would agree to sign me out and not press charges.
By the time I got on the US Air Force C-141 transport aircraft, I had been up for nearly 48 hours. I had not changed my uniform (desert camouflage utilities), and my boots had a thick coat of dust and grime on them. I smelled awful, but no one seemed to mind, and soon we were airborne and on our way to a US Air Base in Spain, where we would refuel and fly on to McGuire Air Force Base, in New Jersey. Joining me as passengers was a unit of some 30-odd Air Force Security Police who had deployed to Saudi Arabia in November 1990, and were now headed home. We landed in Spain, and were told we had a few hours layover before our flight would continue. I rustled up a cheap razor, wanting to shave before I landed in the States. No sooner had I completed this task than I was notified that my flight was leaving. I made my way to the gate, only to find that my fellow travel companions from the Air Force would not be joining me. The aircraft, it turned out, had been requisitioned by a US Air Force Major General, who had installed a "comfort pallet" (a slide-on, slide off device configured with standard commercial airline-type seats, as opposed to the web seats alongside the aircrafts fuselage we had been using.)
Apparently, the General was taking his wife to another base in Spain, where they would be picking up carpets and other personal items, before flying on to the United States. With the "comfort pallet" on board, there was no longer room for the Air Force security personnel, who were told they would be bumped to the next flight out, which would be in a day or so. These airmen were furious, since most of them had made phone calls telling their family members they would be home soon, and plans had been made based on that information. Their anger was furthered by the knowledge that there would only be two passengers using the "comfort pallet" -- the General and his wife, and that the other seats would remain empty. I was one of the fortunate few who was allocated a spot in the rear of the aircraft (on web seats, of course.) I offered to give up my spot to one of the airmen, but was told that they had deployed as a unit, and would be going home as a unit. I protested to the aircrew, and asked why these men couldn't be assigned the empty seats in the "comfort pallet" so they could go home on time. It was out of their hands, the crew chief and pilot told me.
I landed in McGuire Air Force Base the next afternoon. It was a rainy day, and there was a small reception committee on hand for the General and his wife. The handful of other passengers, like myself, were greeted with handshakes and a smile. "Welcome home!" we were told, before being processed by Customs and Immigration, picking up our bags, and handed tickets for our follow-on travel. I was being sent to Philadelphia International Airport, where I would catch a shuttle into National Airport, in Washington, DC. It was only after I arrived at the air conditioned terminal, and took a seat in the waiting area, that I noticed everyone looking at me. I was still in my filthy utilities, wearing a night-camouflage smock for warmth, and I smelled like something the cat had dragged in. The TV screens in the terminal were broadcasting news reports from Iraq, including the same combat footage of the US Army destroying Iraqi tanks I had witnessed in Riyadh just a few days back. I was very conscious of people watching the TV screen, and then stealing a glance at me out of the corner of their eye.
I landed in Washington, DC, and took a cab to the home of John and Anne, two friends whom I had worked with as an inspector while in the Soviet Union. They were both still at work, so I took a hot bath (I had to change the water several times before it lost its muddy color from the filth I carried), and put on a fresh set of civilian clothes -- the first I had worn in nearly three months. Anne was away for work, leaving John and I alone to celebrate my return. We decided to go out for dinner at the local TGIFs, a few miles from his home. It was a surreal experience. My mind was still racing with the realities of war, whether it be buildings destroyed at my instigation, Iraqi missile attacks, exaggerated battle damage reports, or the carnage that was still ongoing along the Iraqi-Kuwaiti border. I continued to fume about nearly being detained in Riyadh for "zeroing" my weapon, and for the airmen who missed their flight home in Spain. Around me American civilians were living their lives, oblivious to both my frustrations, and the larger issue of the conflict in the Middle East. Seeing my discomfort, John elbowed me and drew my attention to an attractive waitress who was approaching our table. "Look, Scott," he said. "Mercedes."
John and I first met Mercedes in November 1990, when I had received my deployment orders to Saudi Arabia. At that time I was assigned to the Warfighting Center, in Quantico Virginia, where I had been helping a special planning cell that had been put together at the behest of the Commandant of the Marines, General Gray, to develop options for the employment of Marine combat forces in Iraq. One of my last tasks was trying to find a weak spot in the Iraqi defenses that would enable Marine ground forces to avoid a costly frontal assault. I had been using computer models based off of intelligence about Iraqi defensive dispositions, and had come up with some ideas that the Commander of the Warfighting Center, General Matt Caulfield, forward on to General Walt Boomer, the Commander of Marine Forces in Saudi Arabia. General Boomer had been impressed enough to submit a by-name request for me to be assigned to his headquarters to help plan the assault on the Iraqi defenses. Rumor had it that I was going to be attached to one of the lead assault units and, having modeled such attacks, I knew the potential for heavy casualties on the part of these Marines was real. I was nervously excited about being deployed to a war zone, and John played up on this by marketing me to Mercedes as a "future war hero" whom she should go out with (I was, at the time, recently separated from my first wife.)
Mercedes and I never went out -- I was never inclined to ask her, and it is highly doubtful she would have said yes even if I had. But because John and I were regulars at TGIFs, she often waited on our table, and our exchanges were friendly and lively. So it was no surprise than when John, Anne and I joined another good friend, Stu (a veteran of the Desert One rescue mission in Iran, in 1981), for a farewell meal at TGIFs on the eve of my departure, we were glad to be waited on by Mercedes. The meal was friendly but somber. Stu gave me careful instructions on how to annotate my blood type in various locations on my uniform, "Just in case." John handed me a 1945 Mercury Dime a relative of his had carried on Iwo Jima. "It got him home alive. It will do the same for you," he said. And Anne got Mercedes to bring us a free round of drinks, along with a kiss on the cheek "for the departing hero." It was with fond memories of that send-off that, freshly returned from war, I watched Mercedes as she approached the table.
"You remember Scott?" John asked her, a smile on his face. "The Marine who went to war? Well, he's back!"
Mercedes looked at me with as much detached ambivalence she could muster. "Oh, yes," she finally spoke. "Welcome back." She paused. "Thank you for your service," she said, before walking away and handing our table over to another waitress, who dutifully took our order without another word being said about who I was or where I had been. On the TV screen to our front, patrons watched sports updates in the lead-up to "March Madness" -- the NCAA Basketball Tournament. Classic rock and roll music blared in the background, while at the bar men and women engaged in the timeless ritual of casual courtship. In my pocket was the 1945 Mercury Dime John had given to me for good luck. I had planned on giving it back to him that evening, in celebration of my return from war, but my mind had drifted, and the coin remained put.
That was March, 1991. On this Veteran's Day, in 2015, I still have that coin.