Every year on Memorial Day I write a blog about my love for the American GI. When one thinks of the American GI they think of a thousand things. First and foremost, they think of liberators. There have been people cheering when the American GI’s have come into their villages to free them from some tyrannical dictator who has shot people in the streets for opposing views. People also think of GI Joe, an American hero and action figure for young boys. My brother had one, and during the times he was forced to play Barbies with my sister and I, usually as a punishment for breaking something with his slingshot or water gun, GI Joe was always the plastic gentlemen bringing flowers.
Unfortunately Barbie wasn’t a fan of his Rambo like killing tactics.
Yes killer is also a what goes along for some when it comes to the American soldier. Whether it is the unfortunate Mai Lai Massacre or the incidents of troops torturing prisoners in Iraq, the term has gotten a negative connotation. In addition, GI is actually obsolete. It means general issue. Yes, and many men and women in uniform do not feel they are general issue. These days, according to Colin Powell, sailors want to be knows as sailors and Marines want to be known as Marines. Fair enough I suppose.
Memorial Day is a wonderful holiday that unfortunately only comes once a year. It is the time we remember those who died in foreign wars. The rest of the year we seem to forget about those young men and women who lost their lives in combat. As a comedian I often find myself in debates over what free speech means. Meanwhile, there were men who lost their lives on the battlefields of Lexington and Concord rather than bow to a king so I could have the right let alone make the debate. These days we argue politics on facebook all becoming computer chair pundits. Yet as we pontificate we forget the minute men being slaughtered in the hot, New England sun in wool uniforms. That is bravery, spewing opinions on facebook is not. Because of their sacrifice we can civilly overthrow our rulers every four years. We can say something is wrong with the government without being jailed. However, we never give the first patriots a thought whenever we freely espouse our opinions on a social networking site.
Every election we think of what it means to be an American. We argue what it means to be a citizen of this great country. Often times we get selfish with our social causes. Politics becomes divided and people because of it. In our self-centered fear, we neglect the memory of the Civil War, a time when American soil was red with blood from a conflict that pitted brother against brother. We must remember that while we can have our differences as Americans, we must come together as one when it is all over. If the loss of the lives of these young men taught us nothing but that, so be it.
The American GI brings this hope and oneness every where they set foot from the beginning of the United States and her prominence. In the World War I, America and her soldiers helped end the power of monarchy and divine right in the Western World. We showed them that there could an easier, softer way where people had equality, rights, and a voice working in cooperation with the government. World War II saw America and her soldiers defeat Adolf Hitler and the evil Nazi cause as they liberated those deemed untouchable from concentration camps. In Japan, there is the memorable photo in Iwo Jima, young men who could be no more than eighteen or nineteen, raising the stars and stripes. These are America’s sons. Young men doing monumental tasks and representing something much bigger than they could ever dream of being. This is who the American GI should be as he journeys overseas.
Of course there is Korea, the war we skip over in school. While these veterans are forgotten most of the time, we should remember them today and the message of freedom that they carried. We should remember their lives lost. They too are heroes under the red, white, and blue.
When we talk about foreign wars we cannot help but bring up Vietnam. To say the very least it is the black mark on America’s record. Perhaps a failing and a mistake. Because many felt this way, the Vietnam Veterans were disregarded like common trash. As a result they fell prey to homelessness and drug addiction. I feel this same way about the current US Conflict. However, I also want to point out that while I don’t agree with the cause I support the troops. Over the years I have received many fan letters from American soldiers overseas and have been blessed to have many in my audiences. They want to laugh, party, and have fun. More than anything though, they risk their lives to raise the flag. This is why it is okay to not support the cause but you must always support the troops. America, despite it’s problems, is still the greatest country in the world. Again, it is the blood shed from young men probably no more than eighteen so we can have this right to say something is wrong. These men and women are risking their lives. Treat them with dignity and respect.
Colin Powell wrote a beautiful article several years ago in Time Magazine about the American GI. He wrote about how we no longer use the term, yet how it still applies. He tells a touching story about how a Japanese American businessman was in an internment camp as a young boy, another black mark on the American record, and he was crying. A GI who was guarding these American citizens took pity on the young lad and gave him a Hershey Bar. The young boy, who had been ripped from his home forcibly due to the post Pearl Harbor xenophobia, appreciate the gesture of kindness. Years later he told General Powell the story. Upon hearing this, Colin Powell purchased a Hershey Bar for the man who broke into tears upon receiving the gift. Maybe the GI isn’t always carrying out the best orders, but if he is truly a representative of the flag he treats all he meets with dignity and respect. He also believes in protecting the innocent, even if the innocent party is a child who happens to be enemy color.
The definition of what it is to be an American GI let alone an American soldier is always progressive and changing. In the Civil War, freed slaves fought alongside Union troops during several major battles. However, color barriers were not truly broken until the second World War. Blacks and whites fought together to win a war, and showed America that we could live as one in peace. Now women are joining the ranks not just as enlisted people but graduating as officers from military academies. Not only are they bringing themselves bravely like their male counterparts to the front lines, but also adding their perspective and unique brand of leadership to command positions making the US stronger overseas. Now that Don’t Ask Don’t Tell has been lifted, LGBTQ people can proudly serve their country being a proud American but also not hiding who they are, which is what it truly means to have freedom. Their understanding of this concept as well as equality will add another positive dimension to leadership in the armed forces as well. In the words of the Declaration of Independence, “All men are created equal.” American soldiers died for these words, and now we expand the definition so not only many have rights overseas but also in our own backyards.
When I think of American GI I think of those I know. There were both my grandfathers who served in World War II in Japan. While I have never met my dad’s father, who died before I was born, I have heard my mother’s father talk extensively about the war. My Pop Pop says that while the Japanese were “enemies” they were hardworking people who never showed animosity after the atomic bomb. Rather they were willing to work with the US to clean up the country. Pop Pop spoke about the kindness he experienced from the Japanese people themselves and spoke about how their value of hard work and family stayed with him, even upon coming back to the US.
I also think of my late Uncle Gregory Columbus Diffendale. Yes, he loved dirty jokes and swore like a sailor. However, my dearly departed uncle also drove through Germany “killing them fucking Nazi’s.” A real life version of the Ingolorious Bastards
, he and his buddies would load their bodies in the back of a truck and just keep driving. My uncle was there when the Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals and others deemed unfit were liberated. While he always had a sense of humor that could be deemed offensive, when my uncle was boss of the dairy he gave jobs to deserving people regardless of their race, ethnic background, or faith. It was because he saw how destructive hate could be, and knew there was more to a person than exteriors.
I also think of Bernie, my Uncle John’s brother. A Vietnam Vet who came back from the war with PTSD, he got hooked on drugs. Over the years he provided my family members and I with a colorful story or two from his brushes with the law to dating hookers and everything in between. While the tales are colorful, this is a testament to the fact that Americans should treat their veterans better, especially the government. If there had been programs in place to help him maybe he would have taken a better path.
I cannot forget my friend Dave Rosner aka Full Metal Foreskin, a Jewish Lieutenant Colonel in the Marine Corps. When not on active duty, Dave performs standup comedy. He has served in the Gulf War as well as the current Middle Eastern Conflict. In addition, he has put on shows for US Troops as well as Veterans. Whether he is appearing at your local comedy club or on Fox News to give military insight, Dave brings his endless energy and positive attitude to any situation. Hey, not everyone can be a Lieutenant Colonel let alone a Jew in the Marine Corps.
On that list of heroes I cannot forget Russell Kurtz, my classmate who was killed in action in Iraq. Russ played football, was popular, and most of all was liked by everyone who crossed paths with him. I don’t think he had an enemy in the world. After high school he expressed interest in being in the army, and was immediately deployed to Iraq. According to his mother, despite the fact he was in the middle of the desert, he never complained about the heat. He only wished they served better food. Unfortunately, he was killed while his jeep was driving over a land mine. Russ was twenty years old. Same with those who lost their lives in other wars who’s names I do not know. However, Russ’s name and face give them all a human identity and voice. They were someone’s brother, son, cousin, father, etc.
Last but certainly not least I think of Antonio Sandoval, Jr. He was my POW/MIA. Purchased as a gift for me by my brother for my seventeenth birthday after 9/11, it was a token that showed my love for America. Antonio Sandoval was from Southern Texas and captured in Vietnam. I wore his name on my wrist because they never found him in hopes that someday they might. My mom told me he was probably dead like so many young men from that generation. This was typically the case of a POW that was never found. Years later, his remains were uncovered in what was once a Cambodian prison camp where he met his end at nineteen years old. I know his end was gruesome. Eventually what was left of him was returned to his family who gave him a proper burial. Sure he might gone, but what he did as well as what other young men like him matters to me. And it should matter to any and every living, breathing American.
The list of names goes on, not just for me but for all of us. We all know someone who has served and also, someone who has lost their lives. Most importantly, we know the extent they went not just to honor and serve but what they represented. Today we honor the GI, the soldier, the sailor, the fighter pilot, the Marine and whatever else he or she wants to be called. Whatever gender pronoun they might want to go by. Either way, they represent by great nation changing for the better.
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