Most veterans never shot at anyone and never were shot at. But due to the nature of the business of protecting the United States and its allies and the world's trading routes, most had an elevated chance of injury or death.
Just like a football team, where the names we know are the quarterback, running backs and receivers, we mostly hear about those participating in hostile action, as in Iraq and Afghanistan. And this is as it should be; those facing hostile fire and suffering long periods of stress should get the most attention and receive the care and concern from their homeland. But just like that football, it takes all the players in the military to win the game.
Many veterans served in less-known, often monotonous and often isolated ways. At any time, our military is in action, on land, in the seas and in the air, everywhere on earth. There are airmen who sit watching the controls of missiles in silos along the Canadian border or at an air base in Turkey and seamen who regularly stay under water for three months or more under the North Pole. There are Marines guarding the east coast of Africa and soldiers stationed in South America and Indonesia.
It's an amazing and costly, but necessary, enterprise. And the living veterans of these unseen missions deserve our appreciation.
During the Vietnam War, I worked on avionics - aircraft electronics - on F-111s. I was stationed in New Mexico and England, far away from Southeast Asia. Yet we were part of the Cold War against the Soviet Union.
F-111s at Cannon Air Force Base had state-of-the-art avionics that were mostly unheard-of prototypes. The nation spent a lot on research and development of new weapons systems to stay ahead of the Soviets.
Royal Air Force Upper Heyford was an American air base near Oxford, England, and assigned to NATO. We had several F-111s loaded with nuclear weapons, which had the capability of taking off in about 10 minutes.
We had alerts several times a month, especially during 1974 when the United States was rapidly pulling out of Vietnam, and the Soviet Union was feeling testy and arrogant. Alarms would sound all over the base, and if I was on duty, my fellow technicians and I would pile out of the electronics shack and stand with our eyes glued to the F-111s loaded with nukes, taxiing out of the compound and heading toward the end of the runway to sit. We would watch them intently for about a half hour to see if they would take off.
It was an eerie feeling watching them, because we knew if they ever took off, it was the end of civilization and, basically, the world. They would head for Moscow to deliver their deadly loads, and the Soviets would retaliate with weapons of equal intensity. Thankfully, they never deployed, and by the end of the next decade, the Soviet Union was destroyed, without ever opening the nuclear window.
Thousands upon thousands of military personnel participated in the Cold War - of which Korea and Vietnam were both deadly components. Today, many thousands of military personnel are working in equally obscure ways to keep the seas and the airways free and clear.
None of the living veterans who participate in these lesser-known missions would ever claim to be the hero that military personnel who face hostile fire are. Yet they are heroes, in their own right. We owe those who never faced hostile fire a thank you for their dedicated service, especially if they were drafted into service. The time to do that is today, Veterans Day.