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Jewish World Review March 24, 2003 / 20 Adar II, 5763

Lenore Skenazy

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Old soldiers never lie | "They ain't kids - they're men now. And, don't forget, women," said Tom Seiler, a veteran of the Korean War, talking about our troops overseas.

As he and his fellow vets gathered at American Legion Post 1636 in South Brooklyn to hear the war news last week, their hearts went out to our soldiers overseas.

"What are they - 18, 20?" asked Ronnie Grant, 71, his voice soft with sympathy.

"And what the he-- were you?" replied his buddy James Monarch.

So it has always been: Wars are fought by our young. Kids whose parents send care packages along with prayers.

Whether or not you agree with this latest war -- and the vets were divided -- one thing you can't help feeling is overwhelming gratitude toward our soldiers, present and past. And there's nothing like a little chat with some of these vets to realize: Yes, war is hell.

But serving Uncle Sam is also a life-changing honor.

"It straightens you out," said Monarch, 71, remembering his wild days before he got drafted. "I was crazy. Barroom fights, street fights, robberies. ..." he sighed. "Then I went in the service. When I came back - no problems. I drove a school bus for 40 years."

It was not only the sense of duty, but the discipline, he said, that changed him.

"You do something wrong, you got a detail, like cleaning the grease pit," said Monarch. "Don't do that detail and you got something worse."

"Like latrine duty," piped up Grant.

"You know what happened to me?" asked John Biagini, also a Korean War vet. "I put the spoons into the wrong pail one night and the sergeant says to me, 'Gimme a low crawl.'"

Low crawl?

"He had me crawling on the ground for 10 minutes. I got up, I was as black as him. Then he put his nose right up to mine and he said, 'You wanna hit me?' I said to myself, 'I wanna kill you!' And you know - this man became my best friend. He came to my wedding."

"Good life, good life," said Seiler. And the other old guys nodded.

It was the camaraderie that made military life not only bearable, but often unmatched by anything since.

But did the camaraderie make up for the constant fear?

"You don't have time to be scared!" said Chris Murphy, a Vietnam vet. "You're trained not to think, but to do." It's only afterward, he added, "you realize what could have happened."

To me, Murphy's story sounded like it was plenty scary at the time: Stationed in the rice paddies, he stood guard half-submerged in the water all night.

"After a while, you put your head down to get some rest," he said. "If the rains come while you're asleep, the water can get up to your neck."

And so can the leeches.

"Then you burn them off with a cigarette," he shrugged.

All the guys at the hall had experienced miserable, sometimes unimaginable things as servicemen. Frankie Grillo's ship reached Japan a week after the A-bombs in World War II.

"You could smell burned bodies everywhere. The Japanese had no money. They were going through the ash cans to find food." He and his buddies gave them whatever they had.

As much as the camaraderie, the fear and the discipline, that kind of experience changes a young man, too.

Then one day you're discharged, concluded Murphy, "and you have the rest of your life ahead of you." Young bucks turn into working stiffs who turn into retirees at the legion hall. Grateful.

If only all our soldiers could come home to trace that same trajectory.

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JWR contributor Lenore Skenazy is a columnist for The New York Daily News. Comment by clicking here.


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