above: Colonel Fred Cherry, USAF
Phil Avillo and I grew up not far from one another on Long Island. Neither knew each other at that time. Phil graduated from Hofstra University in 1963 and I from Springfield College in 1964. Upon graduation we both accepted commissions in the Marine Corps as infantry officers and served in Vietnam. There, Phil lost his leg above the kneecap from a 50 caliber round and I received a gunshot wound in the wrist.
We met in the late 60s, when we were both in graduate school San Diego, at a small gathering of Marines celebrating the Marine Corps birthday. We became life-long friends. Phil earned a PhD and I an MBA. We both became college professors – Phil at York College in Pennsylvania, and I at SUNY Institute of Technology (now SUNY Polytechnic) in Utica, New York. Phil also ran twice for Congress (his campaigns were not successful), and I started a wholesale housewares business, which I am still involved with, in upstate New York and Florida.
Phil and I have been married 48 and 50 years respectively, and our wives are very close with one another. The Martins and Avillos have visited with one another often over the years.
Recently, I emailed Phil and expressed deep-seated worries about the direction our country was headed. This inspired a series of emails between us. And from them emerged a proposal: a proposal for national unity via service. It is, in essence, time we hold ourselves to a higher standard of what it means to be an American.
10 April 2016
Subject: Heroes and our Generation.
I recently read an obituary of a fellow Vietnam War vet in the Post – maybe three weeks ago. It triggered many emotions and thoughts, most of which have been with me for roughly the past ten years.
First of all, the obituary is of Colonel Fred Cherry, USAF. I’m curious – did you ever hear of, or know, him? Colonel Cherry was a black veteran of Korea and Vietnam. He was shot down over North Vietnam and endured seven years of captivity in Hanoi. Of those seven years, 702 days were in solitary confinement. The North Vietnamese paired him up with a white Navy ensign who also was shot down and became a POW. The NVAs thought that the black and white officers would not get along and that they could convince Colonel Cherry to speak out about racial injustice in the United States.
That proved not the case. The colonel and ensign took care of one another’s wounds and they became friends for life.
You are far better read than I am and suspect you knew of Colonel Cherry. But I had never heard of him and this is a fact: neither have 99.9% of Americans. Colonel Cherry: a true American hero – seven years as a POW and 702 days in solitary confinement. 702 days in solitary – nearly two years! I could not survive two days; he endured it honorably.
Why has the country never heard of, acknowledged, and honored such a great American? And therein lies one of my rubs – a deep-seated one. Back in our day, growing up in the ‘40s and ‘50s, we had heroes: Jimmy Doolittle, Audie Murphy, Ira Hayes, Ike, Patton, MacArthur, FDR, Churchill, Puller, et al. And the vast majority of America, including her youth, knew of them. But not now. Although we do have heroes now, as well, the country disregards them.
About seven years ago I gave a Memorial Day speech at the local AMVETs post. My topic addressed the same concerns I have in this email to you. I used sport heroes from then and now to make my point. A little research had revealed that 800 professional and college athletes from the larger schools had given their lives in WW II. In contemporary times and current conflicts only one, Pat Tillman, has made the supreme sacrifice.
Barry Bonds was in the news at that time, and I went on to compare him with Ted Williams, who served in two wars at the peak of his physical prowess. Ted Williams is, I would argue, the greatest baseball player who ever played, especially when you consider the years he was a Marine pilot instead of a Boston Red Sox player. I concluded by saying that Barry Bonds could not lift Ted William’s bat ¼ an inch off the deck. Standing O, and the best speech I ever gave.
Why do we not salute our real heroes – be they in the military, education, medicine (remember Saulk?), or anywhere else. Is it the fault of the media, who only feed on negativism? Have standards changed? Is it we don’t care – we are so self-centered, selfish, and vain that other people’s accomplishments are not worthy of our time?
Phil, like so many in our country, I am worried about the state of the nation. And I must say this – I’m very disappointed with our generation. When the term “The Greatest Generation” was first coined by Tom Brokaw and made its way into the lexicon I took exception to it. I said, no, there are others equal to it – perhaps including my own. But the past 20 years have convinced me that they – your and my fathers’ generation – are indeed worthy of being called the greatest. And we pale in comparison to them.
Why am I so down on our generation? Well, simply look at our country and view what we, our generation, have wrought: a record deficit that continues to grow, a thoroughly divided and often nasty citizenry, an economy that is suspect when facing future challenges both domestic and foreign, and an educational system that once was the envy of the world and the backbone of our future, but now finishes way out of the top 15 in comparative international scores and indices. And I could go on, but won’t.
From my perch, we must accept the blame for this sad and dismal situation. Our parents and their leaders are long gone, and we have had the con for a solid 25 years or so. Is our generation so self–absorbed that we come before our country – is that the bottom-line? Phil, Cheryle and I supported your campaign for Congress because we fervently believed that you had the character and personality that this country needed, and needs. And you, my good friend, are in a very small minority.
And I need look no further at our current presidential race to question what our generation has bequeathed. Are Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton the best of what we have to offer? How do they compare with FDR, Truman, Ike, and Kennedy? As Simon and Garfunkle sang, “Where have you gone Joe Dimaggio, our nation turns its lonely eyes to you. What’s that you say, Mrs. Robinson? Joltin Joe has left and gone away.” And Phil – I think Joltin Joe has indeed gone away. Can he return?
I’m sorry to have reached this conclusion as the shadows grow longer on Golden Pond. I wish I could be more positive. Perhaps your keener and kinder understanding of our generation would lead you to disagree with me. If so, please respond with hopes of reducing my despondency.
How are you?
Our love, as always, to you and Linda.
What a powerful message you have written, one with which I am in virtual agreement on every issue. I, too, am sickened with the lack of a common purpose other than selfishness, greed, incivility, and disrespect for so much of what you and I hold sacred.
I’m less inclined to hold our generation as accountable as you, but not because I disagree with your appraisal of the majority of our chronological contemporaries.
The best of our generation, whom I define narrowly as those who served our country in meaningful and selfless missions – our fellow warriors, Peace Corps volunteers, civil rights advocates, (others I may be overlooking) – have had virtually no leadership role in setting a standard for our country.
The revelations regarding Speaker Hastert, a man our age who never served, molesting children, may be at one extreme, but think of all the others who have never served, and who have been running the country for nearly half-a-century. And the worst offenders are those you highlighted in your speech last summer: those who have never served but who send other people’s children into battle and refer to it euphemistically as “boots on the ground.”
The reality is that on a national level, both politically and economically, our country has lacked a visionary leadership that celebrated selflessness. Instead, we have leaders in government determined to pander to the crassness and selfishness of their own circles and disregard all of us in the general public.
We need instead a leadership that asks something of us. Essentially, what we need is a program of national service. Two years, no exceptions, everyone must participate, some time, somewhere.
This would be a massive undertaking, one that would require incredible political will, like no one has seen since Johnson’s healthcare and civil rights initiatives in 1960s.
Such service would include a variety of different avenues. Quickly coming to mind are the military, Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, Vista, health-care opportunities for anyone in that profession, a teachers corps, Habitat for Humanity, legal services, and so on and so on.
The devil would, of course, be in the details. But if such a national program were implemented with a patriotic fervor that emphasized service above self, and contribution to the national common good, and if everyone had an opportunity to engage with his or her own talent, such a plan might actually work. One area that would not counted as national service would be elected office, or working for elected officials. Running for and serving in elected office should be a privilege earned only after national service.
Ken, I really don’t have a solution other than this. Is it possible that somewhere, someone out there, could take this idea and run with it? Perhaps if those of our generation who did serve in the military and the Peace Corps rallied, and began a nationwide movement extolling the virtues of the service that we embraced – service that puts so much above self – possibly something could happen.
Clearly, service in all areas would contain risks, especially the military option. But don’t we pride ourselves on being a nation of risk takers? Isn’t that the kind of country we want for ourselves? And wouldn’t risk-taking for selfless purposes elevate us all to a higher level?
Maybe we could start by going to the veteran organizations. We could ask for time on the monthly agenda to make the case that those of us who served must take to the streets, literally and figuratively, and demand implementation by all these presidential candidates, by all our candidates for the Senate, by all of our congressional candidates, and every other political entity and so-called non-profit that we can think of, to make national service in the United States a rallying cry that reverberates throughout our country.
Imagine what that picture would look like; imagine how that message would resonate among the remnant of the so-called greatest generation, and among the baby boomers, generation Xers, millennials – among those people in this country who seldom seem to think about doing anything for anyone else but themselves. Perhaps it would fall flat, but in all those groups there must be significant numbers who agree with us (I’m assuming you agree with me) and who would take this idea and spread it throughout the country.
Yes, I realize this sounds like attacking windmills. In some ways I think I’ve been doing that a good part of my life, with little success. But this might be a last hurrah, a virtual swan song committing us to demonstrate again the importance of service to all above self.
Ken, you remain for me a great source of strength. I am energized by your enthusiasm, compassion, selflessness, but most importantly, I am comforted in so many ways by your deep and abiding friendship.
As I witness with increasing anguish the disintegration in our country of basic civility, not to mention the outright violent responses that scream at us from our morning newspapers, my sense that we have to ensure all Americans have some skin in the game intensifies. Currently, there is no connector, nothing that brings all of us together. Rather, we are defined by differences; we should be focusing on what binds us together.
So why not just draft everyone? Right out of high school; right out of college; right out of law school; right out of medical school; and wherever this takes us. Everyone serves two years in the military as an enlisted person – men and women. Only after that experience are you entitled to enter the officer corps through the channels now available – military academies, ROTC, OCS, and other means that I may have overlooked.
What would we do with all these people? Well for one thing, once drafted, they could be used for universal service roles having nothing to do with the military. For example, infrastructure projects similar to those developed during the depression, such as the Works Progress Administration. And Vista, Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, and current programs like these would take many of these recruits. But, while doing these jobs, those enlisted would also devote at least one day a week to military training.
Clearly, the complexity of this notion is overwhelming, but the simplicity of the idea can have positive results. We have, it seems to me, become a nation of whiners -concerned only about what we don’t have and what we see others have. Perhaps this is a naïve view on my part – it has always been that way, some might say. Am I falling off track here? Not sure. But I do remain convinced that we cannot continue along a course driven by personal selfishness and indifference to community.
Oh yes, I know, we have all these organizations “committed” to helping people – corporations like Wounded Warriors, and others, which are actually driven by their own selfishness. We have just experienced another so-called patriotic holiday, July 4, with all the platitudes of freedom and thank you for your service and get your sheets at half-price at Sears. Oh, great deals on cars this weekend also!
Of course one way to make this draft easier would be to take all the so-called gun- toting patriots, always proclaiming their willingness to protect the Constitution and the country, and put them in a uniform, regardless of their age. As you and I both know, most of these so-called patriots are phonies – cowards, who define their manhood by strapping a pistol around their waist. Time for them to put their money where their mouths are, and, men and women alike, and get shipped as a huge military force to Syria, Iraq, or anywhere else their massive firepower can be put to good use.
Now I am really off-track. The words are just flowing, a literal stream of consciousness with ease I haven’t experienced in quite some time. I should point out that I have almost succeeded in establishing a complete voice activated computer system that enables me to spew these words out using Dragon Dictation for diatribes such as this, as well as sort of maneuvering around the Internet. The system is hands-free. I can hardly lift my hands, but the good news, at least for a while, is that for some activities, such as this, the hand capabilities I do have get me my initial access to the computer. Thanks for listening. I’ll try to be more sensible when I do this again. ***(see footnote)
Bravo Zulu, good friend, and I again wholeheartedly agree with your suggestions.
Also impressed with Dragon Dictation – just don’t use it when drinking. Or then again, maybe….
On a more serious note, adding to what has been said in our recent emails, and in light of all the rhetoric and analysis spawned by the two recent political conventions, my worry over the schisms in our nation increases. The divisiveness rampant in our country has received much press – be it left versus right, black versus white, gay versus straight, etc. But to me the most dangerous division facing the Republic is that of class, and you can lump many categories in it: rich versus poor, haves versus have-nots, educated versus uneducated – you get the point. For instance, think of how many Ivy League graduates and undergraduates served in WW II. They rolled up their sleeves and went off to fight for their country alongside the farmers, factory workers, miners, and so forth. But where were they – the elites – in Korea and especially in Vietnam? And where are they now in Afghanistan and the Middle East? Nowhere do we see the country working and pulling together. I feel the suggestion for national service not only has merit but is virtually a necessity.
I will try to consolidate the various thoughts and communiqués we have had on this subject, send it back to you for a chop, and then start our networking efforts by seeing if someone else is interested in having their readers view it.
Hugs to Linda and thanks, once more, for your thoughts.
It is Saturday morning here in steaming Florida. I want to consolidate our thoughts, pass them on to you for your chop, and then see if any paper or website wants to publish them for their readers with the hopes that we can create a groundswell that might make national service a United States policy.
Like you said, it would be a mammoth undertaking for the country, rivaling not only President Johnson’s Great Society initiatives but akin also to some policies FDR created to get us out of the Depression – WPA, CCC, etc. However, our national service proposal would be unlike those programs in that they were mainly aimed at helping many desperate people out of financial hardship brought on by the Depression. While our initiative will certainly aid some who are un- or underemployed, and also help the country by strengthening our armed forces and improving our infrastructure, it’s foremost purpose is to bring our young people from different races, classes, and backgrounds together, creating a widespread and energetic bond, bettering our country now and for the future. As you so-correctly identified, the devil will be in the details. But let us remember an old Marine Corps marketing slogan: “Nobody promised you a rose garden.”
I feel that the suggestion will be welcomed and supported by fellow veterans and less so by non-vets. I feel this because veterans alone know the seismic change that they underwent when first donning their uniforms and going through basic training. In many cases, they were meeting and working with people they never had never had contact with before, be it because of difference in race, geography, or social status. Remember that the armed forces were the first institution to integrate. You can make a strong case that they have been more successful in this than other branches of society. And this melting pot of being in the military has, for the most part, made better and more compassionate citizens while also strengthening our nation.
Many adolescent Americans are student athletes who have felt the wrath of their coaches. But as we know, that’s is nothing compared to what they’d experience for the first time in front of a squared away drill instructor, striking the fear of God into them and hastening their entry into adulthood.
So, as in days gone, by let the farmers stand next to the CPAs, the mechanics next to doctors, the truck drivers next to teachers. Let us do it together again.
Thus, our above and impassioned dialogue has led to the suggestion of a two-year national service obligation for all young Americans: a crusade wherein all of our nation’s youth will work side-by-side with the goal of uniting our country in a positive and productive way. Would not understanding and growth be enhanced with young members of our society serving together on a team whose purpose is to defend, improve, and advance that which we collectively hold dear?
It will take political will, dedication, and sacrifice: traits that made this country great. Do we yet possess them? That is the larger question.