End of an Era
Frank Mullen III
The subject of my military service comes up occasionally over at Dora's Kwik-Kup. Only when it's relevant, of course.
You'll ask Dora for some sugar, she'll set it on the counter, and I'll slide my stool next to yours. "We enlisted men learned to do without sugar back during Vietnam," I'll say, thereby establishing relevance.
You'll probably miss the subtle but significant difference between the phrases "during Vietnam" and "in Vietnam." You'll likely ask, "Were you in the Army? The Marines?"
"Navy," I'll say, "and I could tell you some stories." Then, with a faraway look, I'll add, "But I don’t like to talk about it."
The fluid grace with which I have flashed my warrior credentials and then slipped them back in my vest pocket leaves you with the impression that the memories of my time in the service are painful.
They’re not painful; they're boring. I was a stateside Navy Musician during the 70s and 80s. What war stories do I have to offer?
"There I was, trapped in the middle of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade; trombones ahead of me, alto saxophones behind, the spectators pelting us with a hellish rain of cheers and ticker tape. Suddenly, the drum major raised two fingers, the signal for 'I'd Like To Teach The World To Sing.' I put my lips to the mouthpiece of the tuba . . ."
Please understand that I have never claimed the status of 'Vietnam War veteran.' That is a title of honor, reserved for those who were there.
But what about we who answered our nation's call closer to home: the drill instructor pushing his recruits to their limits on overnight march, the mess cooks working eighteen-hour-shifts to feed the departing troops, the musician moonlighting as banjo player with Danny Stroud's Dixieland Strutters during happy hour at the officer’s club five nights a week, cash under the table and drinks on the house--did we not also serve?
Indeed we did. Like them, I am a veteran, not of the Vietnam War, but of the Vietnam Era.
At least that's what I thought until last Tuesday night, when I was cleaning the basement and came across a box of my old medals and ribbons.
My Good Conduct award. They gave me three of them; that’s how good I was.
My Navy Achievement medal, one of the highest awards you can earn without being shot at.
An 'E' ribbon with a star, representing two awards. Empathy? Esperanto? I don't remember what I did to earn them, but I must have done it twice.
As I reflected on the history represented by these bits of tarnished tin and faded satin, a forgotten memory surfaced: the Navy never gave me my National Defense medal.
The National Defense Service Medal was the award that identified the wearer as a Vietnam Era veteran. It signified military service anywhere, at any time between 1961 and 1974. From Saigon to San Francisco, National Defense medals were like crew cuts, dog tags and hangovers: nobody bragged about them because everybody had one.
Everybody but me. Although I enlisted in 1974, neither the medal nor its ribbon version were never awarded to me. For years, I waited for the captain to call me to his office for a belated ceremony. And every morning, I showed up for uniform inspection without a single decoration on my chest.
My Leading Petty Officer, Doug Blovall, would look me over and growl, "Where's your National Defense ribbon?"
"I don't have one."
"Then go get one."
"Can I just go 'get' an award? Doesn’t it have to be, shall we say, 'awarded?'”
"I'm sick of your mouth, Mullen. Haul your butt over to the uniform shop and don't come back without a National Defense medal."
"And if they don't have them in stock, order one."
"I can 'order' a medal, like a taco or a Budweiser? In that case, I’ll take two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star, to go."
After four years of this gay repartee, I received my first Good Conduct award. At last I had a medal to make Blovall happy. He got off my case, and eventually I forgot that my Vietnam Era service was never officially recognized.
Recognized or not, I have always offered my military experience for the public good. In troubling times, the nation relies on its veterans to evaluate military strategy and tactics. Believe me, by the time I finish one of my morning briefings at the Quik-Kup, everyone knows what the generals are doing wrong.
Okay, so I wasn't a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But I'm a Vietnam Era veteran and, boy, I could tell you some stories.
After dusting off my medals and reminiscing about my Navy days, I decided it was time to find out about the decoration I never received. I visited the Navy’s website, clicked on "medals and ribbons" and learned an astounding fact: the phrases "National Defense" and "Frank Mullen" cannot be used in the same sentence.
The mass giveaway of the National Defense Service Medal ended, along with the Vietnam Era, on August 14, 1974. I, however, didn’t enlist until the following November.
By this reckoning, I wasn't in the Navy during what we loosely refer to as "Vietnam"; I was in what we loosely refer to as "college." Apparently, they didn't give medals to guys who spent the war riding stolen cafeteria trays down the hill in the snow behind the science building while waving jugs of Gallo and screaming, “I'm druuuunk!”
For days after this revelation, I didn't dare show my face at the Kwik-Kup. I felt like I was walking around in a tee-shirt that says, “What if they ended a war, and then Frank showed up--would he notice?”
But I've stopped punishing myself. The nation's need for my service outweighs any feelings of doubt. If you think I'm going to back off from offering my expertise, let me tell you this, loud and clear:
We Grenada Era veterans aren't quitters.
You don’t remember the Grenada Invasion? 1983? Maybe the campaign in that Caribbean hell-hole didn't drag out as long as Vietnam, but it was a weekend I'll never forget.
Did I see action? Not with the first assault wave–I was needed elsewhere. And believe me, I could tell you some stories.
But I don't like to talk about it.
Copyright 2003 Frank Mullen III
"End of an Era" was originally published by Suite101.com