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When privileged men went to war

Nov 4, 2013 - By Randy Tucker

It used to be commonplace, but now it is all but unheard of.

Sept. 2, 1944, could be viewed as a major turning point for the United States of America. U.S. Sen. Prescott Bush's second son had foregone enrollment at Yale two years earlier and enlisted in the United States Navy at age 18. George Herbert Walker Bush was the youngest pilot in the U.S. Navy.

On that hot summer day in the Pacific, Bush and his two crewmen, John Delany and Ted White, flew off the deck of the USS San Jacinto on a bombing run against the Japanese radio installations on the island of Chichi Jima, 150 miles north of its more familiar neighbor, Iwo Jima.

During the bombing run their Grumman Avenger took a direct hit. Delany and White bailed out and were never heard from again. Bush parachuted into open water two miles north of the island.

Fellow aviators strafed Japanese boats as they attempted to capture him. A few hours later the U.S. submarine Finback rescued the 20-year old pilot and he soon returned to aerial duty.

These days, you don't hear much about Yale, Harvard or, for that matter, any university students in combat. The complexion of the U.S. military has changed dramatically since the final days of the Vietnam War four decades ago.

In World War I the upper classes, including Ivy League students, flocked to the carnage-ridden fields of northern Europe in a clueless chase for adventure, valor and honor.

War isn't the thing you usually see in the movies. It's a dirty business conducted by terrified young men who find themselves in desperate situations with little to rely on except each other and the common desire to survive.

With rare exception, no one in Congress or who earns in excess of $250,000 a year personally knows anyone in the military.

America's present lack of collective historical reference would make one assume that it has always been that way, but that is far from the truth.

Just a few days after the Normandy Invasion of June 1944, Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt died of a heart attack while leading his Army regiment in combat. Yes, the son of the president was in the surf at Omaha Beach, and the affluent and connected sons of senators, congressmen and captains of industry in service were on many battlefields.

The two great wars were fought by men from every walk of life. That is no longer the case.

Vietnam initially was fought by boys selected by local draft boards. The rich and connected were able to avoid military service through deferments.

Our own great "warrior" vice-president, Dick Cheney, took six of them consecutively before he was too old to be drafted. His story is not uncommon.

It is interesting that an entire counterculture rose up to fight the insanity of Vietnam but that the war didn't really lose political support until the draft lottery was instituted and suddenly everyone, not just the poor and minorities, were walking through mine-laden rice paddies half a world away from the comforts of middle class and wealthy lifestyles.

Thomas Alva Edison High School, a poor, inner-city school in Philadelphia, had 66 former students killed in action in Vietnam. No known school ever had more boys killed in combat in our history.

At present, our armed forays into other nations are being led by a specially trained officer class from West Point, Annapolis or the Air Force Academy or from ROTC programs at major universities, while the enlisted men are primarily from poor rural areas, dominated by southern boys.

When these young men and women return from duty, initially in Iraq and now in Afghanistan, people lament their high unemployment rate.

Employers are not overtly discriminating against these young men and women, but their educational backgrounds and the unbelievably high preponderance of brain injuries suffered on duty are an obstacle in the workplace.

Recruiters seek out students from poor families who are not top-notch students and used signing bonuses, the promise of the GI Bill, and re-enlistment perks to get them to join the service.

Military service is vital to our nation, and these young people are proud to serve. But we don't serve them as well in return.

An 18-year old who has low math or reading skills doesn't improve those abilities while being shot at on foot patrol in the mountains of Afghanistan or while being blown up in convoys anywhere else in the region.

The pervasive nature of brain injuries suffered from the concussion of road side bombs and other explosions diminishes their cognitive ability as well. Estimates claim 80 to 90 percent of combat veterans now suffer brain trauma

Our nation relies on the loyalty, bravery and honor of these young people. Those whose decisions lead them into battle would be well to remember John Fogerty's anti-war classic "Fortunate Son."

It was meant for another generation but sadly remains true, "Some folks are born to wave the flag, Ooh, they're red, white and blue. And when the band plays "Hail to the chief", Ooh, they point the cannon at you..."

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Editor's note: Staff writer Randy Tucker is a retired educator. He farms in rural Riverton.

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