Who is a Combat Veteran? What do they Look Like?

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Editor’s Note: the gallery of faces at the bottom has no names since it reflects a question asked by a United States Veteran.
June 25, 2017 (San Diego) This forum was not a place to discuss the Veterans Administration, though they had a table. It was not a place to discuss politics. It was a unique forum, where Veterans came to speak their story, to other veterans and civilians. The oldest of the vets was a World War Two Army Air Corp veteran, who flew missions in the less known Asian fronts. He was part of the many crews who flew supplies to the Chinese over the Himalayas over India.
The youngest retired in 2015 from the armed forces and served during the global war on Terror and other places. They span generations, and they span different wars. They were both male, the vast majority, and female. They were all combat veterans. With women now being part of the combat arms, we will see more combat veterans who are women. However, there is one issue they raised, This is the issue of sexual assault in the military.
There were common themes in the stories. One was the friendships, some for life, that are formed in the crucible of combat. The other is family. To veterans family is critical. The support they get from their family while in the service, and after they come home, is what they have in the end.
The event started with a moment of silence for the 7 sailors lost with the collision at sea of the U.S.S Fitzgerald. Two of those sailors were from San Diego.
Here are some of the stories:
Harry Kaplan served in the United States Air Corp from 1943 to 5. He is a World War II veteran, one of the few remaining, He was born and raised in New York, and the war took him to India. He was a sophomore when Pearl Harbor was attacked, and before the attack, he expected to be the first in the family to go to college. He told the crowd, “I graduated from High School in 1943 and turned 18 in April of 1943.” He was drafted two months later into the service.
“It was the height of the war, maybe the turning point after the Battle of Midway, and we weren’t doing that great.” He went into the service in July and was processed immediately. He wanted to be a pilot, but he did wash out. There were enlisted pilots during the war. They were known as flying sergeants. However, he washed out of flight school.
So instead of becoming a pilot, he became a radio operator. He also pointed out something else. During the war everybody served. There were no exceptions. You wanted fresh vegetables, you grew fresh vegetables. Even the sons of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt served. James Roosevelt, for example, served with the Marine Raiders in the Pacific and earned a Silver Star.

 

Kaplan also served in the Pacific Theater, as a radio operator with a squadron that flew supplies to the Chinese forces fighting the Japanese. “Our job was basically to fly supplies, ammunition, Chinese reinforcements because the Japanese controlled the ground almost the end of the war.”
He learned of this after the war in books. When they were told by the pilot they were going to India, they were surprised, and it is not like today when you can take a plane and be in New Delhi in 12 hours. It took about a month to get on Station. They were based in Karachi, which is in modern day Pakistan, but that was divided in 1947 after he left the Army.
While in the service he was awarded a few medals, which added to his points to come home. With each medal, came a $7 dollar bonus to their paycheck. With inflation, maybe $70 these days? This does not happen today. He also had to bail down once over the jungle and took him four days to walk out.
Like many of the other vets, he thanked his wife for the support over the years.
If you are curious about his service, this is a nice overview of those flights.

 

Joe Joodad served as a Green Beret and retired in February of 2015. He served in our most recent conflicts.  He “served 20 years in the Army in Special Forces. I was in Afghanistan, Iraq, Central and South America.”
What he wanted to share were the good things, and how he grew as a person. He said that “my classroom was the entire planet.” He also said that his service taught him about life, death and everything in a way that he could not imagine. “Combat as a teacher doesn’t really grade on a curve, and it is not forgiving at all.”
“Combat for me was relatively simple to describe. It is long periods of interminable boredom, punctuated by staccato moments of absolute horror.”
Like most veterans, he also spoke, not in details, of the things that he still sees. “Things that I steal deal with.” He added, “my brothers and sisters that are out here today, combat vets, these things, I know probably, you still have them. These things are not going to go away, this is how I deal with them today.”
He also said that when he was in the service, he was grateful for what he was doing. He wanted to be a Green Beret as a kid. He was happy to do that, but then he was recruited into the Black Operations side of the house. He graduated from that school two months after 911, and like many of the War on Terror generation, the operational tempo was very intense. He was gone for 9 months of the year, for 12 years.
“I felt that the war that I was fighting was absolutely just.” However, his war experience would shatter his persona into a thousand pieces. “None of those pieces turned out to be who I really was.” This is something that he is grateful for.
He added that through his years of combat and struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) he was able to find himself.
“The life that I lead was exciting, was fascinating, it was fast and it was furious. But it also became heartbreaking and mean”
“My biggest shift was when I started seeing the targets as human…I could not come back. I could not do my job anymore…It’s a pressure cooker and explodes, eventually.” He also is glad that he did not do anything drastic in 2012. These days he serves his community and helps those that society has given up on.
This is a common thread with many veterans. They come home and they continue to serve in some way.
The forum also had a majority of veterans from the Vietnam War and none from the Korean War. To highlight the Vietnam War we chose is Curtis Williams who trained as a SEAL. They were first trained during that war. They were the successor to the Navy Special Warfare teams of World War Two
“I got into the SEAL team in ’67, and went to Vietnam in mid-’68, and got ambushed about four months later. And a grenade went off, three four foot in front of me. The officer I was with was killed. It was about three in the morning, no moon, dead dark and the next thing I know I am in incredible pain.”
He started to pull himself away since he knew that the next thing they did was to open up, and he was in the kill zone. Yelling did not work and none came to put field bandages on him. He eventually was evacuated by helicopter. He was taken to a military hospital where he remained conscious until he was taken to the operating theater. He also lost a lot of blood and medical personnel was surprised he was still alive.
He came home, but he still remembers those who were with him during the war. He also remembers the funny things that they all did. To this day he walks with a cane. He is one of those vets who’s wounds are also obvious.
Then there are the women. In an age where frontline is fluid, women have been in combat. Many do remember the first woman to face some form of combat from Operation Iraqi Freedom, that is Private Jessica Lynch. However, more women have seen combat. And now that the US Military has opened combat billets to women, we will see even more women.
In this, we had a couple women. We are highlighting one of them. Dye Wenfedil served in the United States Air Force as an MP from 2006 to 2010. Her approach was not that about her experience in the service, but her experience after the service. “I want to raise awareness about discrimination and harassment of veterans in our community.”

 
She asked a very relevant question. “What does a combat veteran look like?” She went on to say that “we all have images in our minds of what a stereotypical combat veteran looks like. But the reality is that a combat veteran looks like any one of us in this room.”
She went on to emphasize that a combat veteran can be white, brown, black, female, male, immigrant or citizen. They can also be Muslim, Christian, or atheist, (or any other religious faith.)
She then asked, “Why does this matter?” Unfortunately, people still discriminate in 2017, in the United States, in California, and in our community here in San Diego.”
She did point out that there are people out there who hate veterans. She went on to explain that people hate veterans who served in Iraq because no weapons of mass destruction were ever found. These veterans served in a war they do not agree with. Too many of these community members, the military is not doing any good in Iraq or Afghanistan.
She also pointed out that to some, service in a combat zone means the loss of life or limb. “I know this because I experienced this first hand recently at work.” She never believed this would happen to her since these are stories that align far more with the Vietnam era. (Of that we had a few stories of Vietnam era vets ordered to wear civilian coyotes in San Francisco when they came home.)
She was singled out because “Somebody associated me with the politics of a war they personally disagree with. Somebody associated me and my past service with PTSD. Whether I have it is irrelevant. I speak on behalf of veterans who return home from combat and want to be productive members of their communities. And have a difficult time reintegrating because of discrimination and stereotypes regarding combat veterans and their mental health.”
She reminded all that those discussions are illegal and that this stigma that veterans are mentally unstable and unsafe to work with is a problem. Her service was also discredited because she did not die or lose limbs.
We could have chosen any of the stories that were told by 12 veterans. We chose these to make some points. But there are some things in particular for women service members. They not only have to face combat, and prove themselves. They many times, face sexual assault. Being in a combat zone, and fearing to go to the bathroom because you might be raped is a problem.
There was one common thread with all the stories. That was of opportunity. One veteran, in particular, achieved his American dream though the Navy, as a helicopter pilot, going from enlisted, to officer.
Another common thread was family and both the horrors of war and being alive. Many spoke in some ways of their comrades, especially the ones who did not come home.

 

 

So we will close, what does a veteran look like? Some you will be able to tell. They wear their medals, and ribbons proudly. Others never wear a thing that would tell you they were in the service. Many will be quiet, and as one of these men and women told us when he came back from Desert Storm, a Normandy veteran asked people to stop talking about war, and Desert Storm, since this world War II was still in some ways at Normandy.
These men and women want to come home, be with family, and be part of their community. Do not hate them, for the policies enacted well above their pay grade. This was not just a message from Wenfedil. Several of the veterans echoed this.

 

 

 

This is a list of veterans from all major wars the United States has fought, starting in 1776.
American Revolution (1775-1783)

  • U.S. servicemembers: 184,000-250,000 (estimated)
  • Deaths: 4,435
  • Wounded: 6,188
  • Last veteran: Daniel F. Bakeman, died in 1869 at age 109

War of 1812 (1812-1815)

  • U.S. servicemembers: 286,730
  • Deaths: 2,260
  • Wounded: 4,505 Last veteran: Hiram Cronk, died in 1905 at age 105

Indian Wars (approximately 1817-1898)

  • U.S. servicemembers: 106,000 (estimated)
  • Deaths: 1,000 (estimated)
  • Last veteran: Fredrak Fraske, died in 1973 at age 101

Mexican War (1846-1848)

  • U.S. servicemembers: 78,718
  • Deaths: 13,283
  • Wounded: 4,152
  • Last veteran: Owen Thomas Edgar, died in 1929 at age 98

Civil War (1861-1865)

  • Union servicemembers: 2,213,363
  • Confederate servicemembers: 600,000-1,500,000 (estimated)
  • Union deaths: 364,511
  • Confederate deaths: 133,821 (estimated)
  • Union wounded: 281,881
  • Confederate wounded: Unknown
  • Last veteran: John Salling, died in 1958 at age 112

Spanish-American War (1898-1902)

  • U.S. servicemembers: 306,760
  • Deaths: 2,446 (385 in battle)
  • Wounded: 1,662
  • Last veteran: Nathan E. Cook, died in 1992 at age 106

World War I (1917-1918)

  • U.S. servicemembers: 4,734,991
  • Deaths: 116,516 (53,402 in battle)
  • Wounded: 204,002
  • Last veteran: Frank Buckles, died in 2011 at age 110

World War II (1941-1945)

  • U.S. servicemembers: 16,112,566 Deaths: 405,399 (291,557 in battle)
  • Wounded: 670,846
  • Estimated living veterans: 1,711,000

Korean War (1950-1953)

  • U.S. servicemembers: 5,720,000 Deaths: 54,246 (36,574 in theater)
  • Wounded: 103,284
  • Estimated living veterans: 2,275,000

Vietnam War (1964-1975)

  • U.S. servicemembers: 8,744,000 (estimated 3,403,000 deployed)
  • Deaths: 90,220 (58,220 in theater)
  • Wounded: 153,303
  • Estimated living veterans: 7,391,000

Desert Shield/Desert Storm (1990-1991)

  • U.S. servicemembers: 2,322,000 (694,550 deployed)
  • Deaths: 1,948 (383 in theater)
  • Wounded: 467
  • Estimated living veterans: 2,244,583 (2009 estimate, may include veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan)

Source: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

 

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