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Born in 1970 I was almost five years old when the Vietnam War ended. I cannot point to one particular event or occasion per se, but as those of you who’ve read Late Bird know, even as a young child I felt a fierce loyalty to Vietnam Veterans. Maybe it was my desire to protect others that formed my allegiance to these brave men…these brave Americans.
Even in my youth, the things that were said or done to them upon their return home, angered me greatly. As I grew older and learned more about their experiences in “Nam” and the absurdity piled on them at home by cowards, my admiration for them increased even further.
As a twenty year old I took a job working on a self-described “ranch” that housed and counseled S.E.D. (Severely Emotionally Disturbed) teenage males.
My first supervisor on the ranch was a Vietnam Vet.
His name was Robert (everyone called him Bob) and aside from my father, a better man I have not known.
Bob was a gregarious, mustachioed, brawny, chain smoking human being that every adult respected (which was saying something because some of my co-workers…well let’s just say it was an eclectic gathering of behavior) and every child trusted (which was an even greater feat as most of these kids had been through their own personal hell).
Aside from the smoke “breaks” (that happened routinely) his entire time on the ranch was spent leading, teaching, and counseling both the adults and the kids. To know Bob was to love him although that word was never used.
At least not among the “men” and there were plenty of us on the ranch acting like “men”.
Although I’ve always been a defender of others I could still be a handful as a six foot 190 lb 20 year old male who challenged authority at every instance if I thought they were wrong. As I write this now I have no doubt Bob could have taken me out back and left me there, but the great thing about this wonderful person was his ability to see the potential in everyone.
He genuinely moved people in the right direction by leading by example…with respect.
It didn’t take long working for Bob before I stopped questioning his leadership.
It wasn’t out of loyalty although he had mine.
It wasn’t out of respect although he had that too.
It was because he was right.
As I worked under his tutelage with the kids my skills and understanding of human behavior grew stronger. Even though I wouldn’t pick up verbiage like intrinsic and extrinsic motivation until later in life he was providing me a lesson in both and how to use them as tools…ethically.
Although Bob was an easy person to talk with he rarely ever spoke about Vietnam…but he did cough a lot. My occasional question was always met with a self deprecating small shrug of a shoulder followed by silence. One time early on he’d assigned me to a group with another counselor. His name was Alan. Bob told me to hang out with Alan’s group and mentioned offhand that Alan was a para-jumper in Vietnam.
“Alan saved people” was what Bob said.
Alan was a short, bespectacled man with a policeman type mustache who always seemed to be wearing sunglasses. I probably had a couple of inches and thirty pounds on Alan although its been twenty five years so it could have been more…or less.
The kids didn’t love Alan the way they loved Bob (that was a bit much to ask) but they definitely respected him. He was an introspective soul that I grew to enjoy being around very much. When I mentioned that day what Bob said to me, he cocked his head and gave me a look (through his sunglasses) while baiting a hook for one the kids, who was fishing in the man made pond on the ranch.
“Bob told you that huh?”
Alan just stared out over the pond and didn’t say another word for what seemed like an hour but was probably only a minute. We never talked about Vietnam. Our conversation turned to God. Maybe I’ll cover that another time.
In retrospect I wish I’d had more time to sit with these two American heroes…whether we spoke or not.
They were both different yet had very American characteristics: Honor, loyalty, humility, and empathy.
They could also handle their business as I saw Bob break up a fight between two large teenagers by snatching them both by the back of their necks and hauling them off, one in each hand, to a three sided outdoor room known as “time out”…coughing the entire way.
I was front and center when a teenager lost all control and started beating another kid with a baseball bat. Alan got there first, stepped in front of the fallen kid and took a shot from the bat right in the arm that was raised to block his face. His disarmed the kid (who was just as big as he was) and took him to the ground where the kid lunged and clamped into Alan’s triceps with his teeth. Blood spurted as I jumped in and helped Alan dislodge the kid’s incisors and we were able to restrain him without any damage to the teenager. Alan cleaned himself up and went on with the day as though nothing had happened.
The kid was arrested later that evening.
I have lots of stories about Bob that would make you smile but my favorite was the time he called me into his office. I was having a problem with a supervisor who was older than I and liked to walk around strutting with fatigues and a crew cut giving orders like he was a drill sergeant. I doubt this guy spent a day in the military.
Let’s just say we had words a few times and back then…well…when angered my words rarely came out as profane…they came out as…statements…yes let’s call them statements and in my “statements” I am very clear what I am willing to do if not left alone.
As you can imagine that didn’t go over too well with “Crew cut” and although nothing ever happened “Crew cut” started making my job a lot harder during the one day a week I was under his supervision. I cannot prove it but I know in my heart what happened next to be true.
“Crew cut” wanted to show his “leadership skills” and write me up for something. Again I cannot prove it but I have no doubt when he started to do this Bob stepped in and told him he would take care of it. “Crew cut” didn’t like it but he wasn’t going to challenge Bob. Everyone loved Bob. Especially “Crew cut’s” boss. He backed off and Bob wrote me up for something I cannot remember. At first I was stunned and hurt that Bob was doing this to me. It seems like such a small thing but loyalty was important to both of us and I was extremely loyal to him. He’d earned it. I left that night upset and I know Bob was too. About a month went by when he called me into his office and closed the door. He opened my personnel file, took out the written admonishment, smiled and tore it in half.
Bob was playing Chess while “Crew cut” was playing…you can fill in the blanks.
Last year while in Miami spreading the message of freedom I had the honor of meeting another Vietnam Veteran.
Kenneth had read a few of my columns on Facebook, knew I would be in Miami and drove down from his home in Florida. When we shook hands I instantly flashed back to Bob. It wasn’t the firm handshake, the straight back, or even the eyes. Every Vietnam Veteran I have ever met has the same intense look. That they’ve experienced hell…and came out on top.
The best way for me to explain this is to use myself as a reference. As an adult young children and dogs have always loved me. People will always comment how kids and dogs will follow me from room to room or climb on me. I tell them its because children and dogs are very in tune to what is around them and they know they are safe.
They are at peace.
That is how I feel around Vietnam Veterans. At peace. There is no ego, no preening, no arrogance. Just hard core peace from hard core heroes. God bless you one and all.
The reason for this particular column was an experience I had last week. My wife and I were shopping and standing in line to check out. I turned slightly to my left and saw a man wearing a hat that said Vietnam Veteran with the same straight back, same intense stare. I thought of Bob and Alan and Kenneth and many other Veterans from Vietnam and smiled as I walked toward the American Hero. He slightly cocked his head as I nodded and referenced his hat,”Vietnam Vet?” I asked.
“Yes sir,” he answered. His name was Terry.
I extended my hand, “Thank you brother. It’s because of men like you I was born free.”
He looked a little shocked then gave an ever so small smile and said “thank you.”
“My pleasure sir. Thank you,” I said as I shook the hand of American Greatness.
His grip said it all.
United States Senate 2017