The spry old vet, in his 80s, was
wearing his dusty old WWII vet baseball cap as he calmly
moved through the supermarket aisles pushing a shopping
cart while his dear ill wife rested at home. The
cap had the usual assortment of little metal miniature
replicas of campaign ribbons and medals, a few military
icons, his combat infantry badge, and his final rank;
the sort of thing any vet understands when 'hat reading'
a fellow vet's cap. If you know what you're
looking at, you can 'read' the story of a vet's time in
the service from the pins on his cap. It's not
exactly a secret code; there are some 26 million living
vets in America. At VA hospitals, in particular,
it's a common experience to realize someone's looking at
the top of your head, reading your hat, and perhaps
puzzling over some of the more obscure icons. So,
as I stared at his hat for a few seconds more than a
casual glance, he 'knew' I was a vet reading his hat.
He gave a friendly grin and nodded. As he was a
WWII vet, he got an automatic salute from me, and a
"thank you for serving" greeting.
Unlike those who've endured just
two or three years of service, senior NCOs tend to have
their rank insignia on their hats along with the other
pins. His had a Sgt First Class insignia. I
told him, "I was an SFC also." "Ah," he
understood: someone who had reenlisted, perhaps several
times over. A bit more mutual respect crossed his
eyes; because, it went without saying that, long ago,
people's lives had been our hands. The older you
get, the more weariness there is in your eyes when you
remember the incredible responsibility you had back when
you'd been too young to worry about it. All that
was quietly acknowledged with a little nod and old men's
"Five years in Europe," he
muttered, "and then I signed up in the Reserves because
I wanted to see Korea; 22 years in the Reserve."
That was not something he'd tell to just anyone.
Most ordinary people would have thought he'd been crazy
as a loon to have volunteered during wartime to go to
Korea as a 'combat tourist,' especially after already
having served in mortal combat against the Nazi war
machine during WWII. But, I understood
as he knew I would. It wasn't a matter of being
particularly brave, nor insane; it was a military
mindset and a sense of adventure that most people simply
don't have. We grinned at each other. I told
him a few shorthand details of my Vietnam Era adventures
and shared one "no shit" story with him. We parted
ways and each went on with his shopping.
Later, we crossed paths again by
the refrigerated packaged lunch meat racks.
Without preamble, he told the story of his WWII combat
in Italy. He knew that I'd be glad to pause and
listen, which I was, while most ordinary folks would
roll their eyes and look for a way to politely escape.
We were two old vets who were not in the slightest
I didn't really want to spoil this
old vet's fun conversation by mentioning that I was a
"GAY VET." Why upset a courageous WWII vet who
meant no harm and was just enjoying an afternoon chat
about the old days? I'd already told him that I'd
served in the Navy and later in the Army Reserve.
"So, how long were you in?" he asked. "Well, just
ten years," I told him. He wondered why I hadn't
gone for the long haul and full retirement benefits.
I'm an activist, it doesn't really take much to get me
to speak up, so I said, "Well, after being a leader, it
just didn't feel right to keep hiding who I was any
longer. So, I left. I'm a gay vet, you see."
His mouth fell open and he was silent for a long moment.
"Oh damn," I thought, "now I've ruined his day."
Then he reached out, grabbed my hand and shook it
vigorously, while chapping me on the shoulder.
"I'm glad you had the courage to tell me that," he said; "my Sgt Major at Ft. Totten, was gay, and there was no
finer soldier that I'd ever served with!"
Times really have changed.
Gay Military Signal