It Might not Always be This Way

  • Published
  • By Maj. Vincent Rea
  • 423rd Civil Engineer Squadron
“Look at the size of that flag,” I exclaimed, pointing at a massive Stars and Stripes that nearly blocked out the sun as it unfurled. It was flying high above a car dealership, one of many that dot New Jersey’s busy state highways. My father was driving, and without letting more than a moment pass, responded by telling me that if I joined the military, I could salute that flag every day. I was young, perhaps nine or ten, and though the comment has stayed with me all these years, I am certain that I didn’t fully grasp the meaning at the time. Never before could I recall my father mentioning military service, and he has done so very rarely since.

In 1966, at just 19 years of age, my father went to the draft board in Manhattan, N.Y. and requested an acceleration to his selective service lottery number. While some men from his neighborhood, and across the nation, were doing whatever they could to avoid going to war, my father asked to be next in line. It wasn’t long before Private Marco Rea, United States Army, was on the hulking Upshur, crossing the Pacific Ocean, bound for Vietnam. He served with distinction during the Tet Offensive, receiving a Bronze Star with a device for valor, as well as two Purple Hearts. The latter came at the expense of a gunshot wound to the arm, and shrapnel wounds in his back, the effects of which he still feels to this day.

When my father returned to his home country, there was no one lining the streets with ‘welcome-home’ signs or ticker-tape dropping from the sky… people did not go out of their way to thank him for his service. In fact, no one said much at all, and when they did, he’d rather they hadn’t. Meal and drink tabs weren’t anonymously picked up. There was no Wounded Warrior Project, or any comparable programs to help him deal with his physical injuries and the emotional impact of losing friends on a battlefield so far from home. Through the eyes of today’s service members, such an experience seems quite foreign to our own, as though it is the type of thing that only happens in movies.

With overwhelming majority, Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors and Marines of the post-Gulf War era receive resolute praise and appreciation from the American public we’ve chosen to serve. In 2007, my squadron received a standing ovation at Shannon International Airport in Ireland as we transitioned to a chartered aircraft bound for Iraq. When my unit returned from Afghanistan in 2009, the people of Great Falls, Montana lined both sides of 10th Avenue South, starting from the Missouri River’s edge, and stretching for over three miles to Malmstrom Air Force Base. They clapped, held supportive signs, and waived at our bus as it carried us from the airport to our families waiting to welcome us home.

Sometimes it is difficult to comprehend how much things have changed since the 1970s, when troops were disgraced for simply following the law, and reporting for duty when called. Our national defense challenges may change over time, as do our leaders, but one thing remains constant – we unapologetically serve the American people. If we don’t continue to inspire trust amongst those we serve, we could find ourselves back in the national nightmare that awaited my father when he returned from Vietnam. As recently as 2017, a Gallup Poll reported that 72 percent of Americans had a high confidence in America’s armed forces. It is easy to view that as an incredibly positive statistic, but it is also worth asking why that number isn’t 100 percent.

Every day is an opportunity to raise that percentage, or face the scary possibility of losing our nation’s confidence. Let’s not take this period in our history for granted, and assume we are owed any adulation. My father gave far more for his country than I, and received far less in return. Yet, nearly 20 years after, he still espoused the positive connotations of military service to his young and impressionable son. Think about how much more we have to be thankful for today: a grateful nation, wonderful work and life opportunities, and support programs that have caught up with the sacrifices we continue to make as a community. It is now incumbent upon us to retain that patronage by meeting the high standards the Air Force has set.

Integrity First, Service Before Self, Excellence in all we do!