It was the accent that threw me. He looked old enough to be a Korean War veteran, but he sure didn’t sound like he grew up in this country.
Mike O’Sullivan gave a broad smile. He must have known what people gathered at Vets Memorial High School were thinking. There was no mistaking he came from Ireland, so, what was he doing fighting for the Americans in Korea?
Mike was one of three Korean War veterans to attend a leadership academy student-run ceremony at the school Friday for veterans of “the forgotten war.” Following outdoor ceremonies, the students and their guests crowded around a plaque inside listing the names of the five Warwick residents who lost their lives in Korea.
Mike posed for pictures with two other Korean War veterans, Bob Markham and Dave Hovey. Soon, the three were exchanging stories. Bob brought along a picture of a young Korean girl staring out from a black and white photograph. Behind her were a couple of one- and two-story buildings, which Bob identified as the town of Suwon, where he had been stationed. He pulled out a color photograph of white office towers against a background of verdant hills. It was a picture of Suwon today, the center for the electronics and computer giant Samsung.
Did he have a desire to go back and see the country today?
Bob didn’t ponder. He saw no reason to return to Korea. The war was behind him.
I was reminded of how I felt when my son Jack and his family moved to Vietnam four years ago. I was briefly in Vietnam during the war with the New York Air National Guard.
I wanted to visit Jack, but I was anxious to see the country and how much it had changed. While I didn’t visit Da Nang, the one place I was during the Vietnam War, there was no mistaking how the country had developed. Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, is a modern city, although the cement bunkers at the airport, once used to protect fighter jets and helicopters, brought back images of the base at Da Nang.
At that time, the draft was in effect and, as I would be drafted as soon as I graduated, I chose to join the National Guard. As fate would have it, my unit was activated to fly supplies into Vietnam. Actually, the entire unit wasn’t activated. Just the pilots, loadmasters and navigators needed to get the planes there and back. I was a mechanic, so I wouldn’t be going.
The irony was that, while I enlisted in the Guard to avoid being sent to Vietnam, I wanted to see for myself what was happening there. I convinced the base commander to activate me, so I could write a series of stories for the Port Chester, NY Daily Item.
Mike said he wasn’t looking to escape the draft and wouldn’t have been drafted anyway.
“I joined the Army to get citizenship,” Mike said.
Had our roles and times been reversed, I wonder whether I would have felt so strongly about wanting to become an American that I would have signed up to be a soldier in a questionable war.
Certainly, for many of our veterans, the service was not their first choice. Some were drafted, many volunteered. Not all agreed with our government, but they believed in protecting our country’s freedom.
The students at Vets High seemed to understand that. And while the draft is in the past, the appreciation of what we have in this country burns strong and today’s youth will readily step forward to protect it.