Monday, November 14, 2011

Veteran’s Day 2011

John Gardner

I am glad I am a “Vet”. That term is, of course, culturally defined in the US to describe someone who has served in the US military. I am proud to know and say I did and was honorably discharged in 1968 after a tour in the US Air Force which sent me to South Carolina and also introduced me to my career with the University of South Carolina.

In my non-profit organization, we celebrate and recognize Veteran’s Day as it is now called (as opposed to our original name – “Armistice Day” which signified the signing of the armistice which brought the killing to a halt in World War I on November 11, 1918—even though technically I am the only “veteran” in the organization. But without that experience there would be no such organization as it was the military which brought me this career.

I am glad I am a veteran because of all that I learned and experienced and especially because of the service(s) I performed. My duties were as a psychiatric social worker in an Air Force hospital. Much as I was opposed to the Vietnam War and did not want to support it, support it I did. I was one of the millions of little human cogs that kept the wheel turning. In my case, I helped keep the war machine operating—my part of it being the unarmed reconnaissance planes that flew over North and South Vietnam taking the pictures which were used to plot the bombing runs—by helping to keep the troops and their dependents functioning. And that I did.

This was also great experience in dealing with anxiety and depressive disorders, character and behavior personality disorders and sexual deviancies, that laid such a useful “foundation” for my subsequent work in the academy with mostly “normal” but some not so normal people.

When I arrived at my permanent base in SouthCarolina, Shaw AFB, in Sumter, S.C. my squadron commander called me in for reasons I did not understand (this was on January 11, 1967). He told me that he had been reviewing my “record” and said “Gardner, you have a lot of education—more than anyone in the Squadron except for the physicans.” This means that we (the Air Force) want and expect you to perform some “service.” I responded “yes sir” but did not understand what he meant by “service.” I was less than a month short of my 23rd birthday and no one had ever told me I was expected to perform “service.” I asked him for an explanation and he offered that he meant “teaching” and told me the base was “desperate” for qualified adjunct instructors to teach in the on-base college program sponsored by the University of South Carolina. So he had the Base Education Office arrange a visit for me two days later, on a Saturday because there were still Saturday classes at USC, to have my credentials reviewed. I was approved to teach six different courses, five in History and one in Sociology. And for the next several years I taught as many as five nights a week and Saturday mornings. I loved it and decided to make that my career after discharge. I am so thankful to the Air Force.

Moral of the story: how many of my readers ever say to their students “I want you to perform some service”? And if you did say it, what would you mean? What options would you give them?

Of course, the draft has long ended. Now we have only the “volunteer army” and entice the poor of our country to go and give their “all” as a form of last resort employment in a society that offers them few other opportunities.

I think that many college students would benefit from some kind of mandatory national service-as I did. What did I learn?

I learned the intrinsic value of performing service, and of its great satisfaction.

I learned that some things mattered far more than I did, for example, our country, and how we cared for others, those less fortunate.

I learned that it is the obligation of government to perform for its citizens those functions which government can perform in ways that individuals can not and that improve the quality of individual citizen lives.

I learned to live and work with a broad cross section of my fellow Americans—a range of people I would never have had such intimate contact with in my previous upper middle class home life and residential, full-time, traditional age college experience.

I learned how large, complex, hierarchal, authoritarian bureaucracies work—and don’t work—how they function rationally, and irrationally, and especially by their own immutable laws.

I learned that responsibility is the most powerful teacher. This came from my observing a culture which gave extraordinary levels of responsibility for life and property to individuals that would never have been so entrusted in the larger society.

I learned the role the US military has played in promoting upward social mobility and in advancing social justice for all minorities.

I learned that the military in a democracy must look like the people of that democracy.

I learned that even in the largest and most rigid of organizational cultures that I could make a difference, make an impact.

As my own career post the Air Force evolved, and our country simultaneously but coincidentally of course, ended the draft and thus the proportion of college educated people like myself in the military declined dramatically, I found myself constantly wondering what kind of experiences I could recommend to my students that would provide for them comparable value to what I had gained from my own military service.

Again, the bottom line for me is that had not a person in authority said to me “Gardner, we believe in having people like you perform service”, I probably never would have discovered this profession where I have made a difference. That “person in authority” was an African-American male, the first person of a race and ethnicity other than my own that I had ever “reported” to. That experience in and of itself was a lesson in democracy.

What is the one thing that you my reader might be able to say to a college student that could turn the direction of the student’s life in some new direction characterized by socially redeeming value?

I savor each Veteran’s Day and remind myself anew what all this means to me.

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