By Rick Phelps
The inspiration for this article is a Veterans Day event which will take place next Friday, Nov. 11 at the Mammoth Lakes Fire Station on Main Street. The celebration begins at 9 a.m., and includes a sponsored pancake breakfast and a brief talk by Bob Waggoner, Colonel USAF, retired. All Veterans, their families and grateful citizens are welcome to attend. Sponsors include Mono County, Mono County Sheriff, Mono County Office of Education, Town of Mammoth Lakes, Mammoth Lakes Fire Department, Mammoth Lakes Police Department, Mammoth Unified School District, Mammoth Lakes Lions and Rotary Clubs and Disabled Sports Eastern Sierra.
Last summer I had a beer with two warriors. One was in his 70s and the other in his early 20s. Both were combat veterans — one in the air and the other on the ground. They fought in different wars in distant lands and one was an officer and the other enlisted. Yet, despite the differences of place, duty, time and rank, these veterans shared like views of their service, team and accomplishments.
Many of you may know these men. The flier is Bob Waggoner, who was shot down over North Vietnam and spent more than six and one-half years as a prisoner of war. The infantryman is my son, Patrick Phelps, Mammoth High School class of 2007, who has had four tours to Afghanistan in his short Army career, with another scheduled soon.
As we were waiting for our beers to arrive, the conversation was about service and not about the infantry rigors or the thrill of high-speed aircraft. Bob wanted to know Patrick’s service today and Patrick about Bob’s service in Vietnam. Both were proud of their service and didn’t feel a need to embellish or exaggerate.
War stories did, of course, come later, but the theme of service to their country came first. Since then, I’ve noticed that the question veterans ask of others, if they suspect service, is, “Did you serve?” There is no begging for a yes with details and, if the answer is no, no value is assigned. I know this as I have answered “yes,” even though my service was not in combat and all in all pretty comfortable; the fact that I had served in any capacity at all put me in a pretty small segment.
By now, the first beer had arrived and the conversation turned to the wars and muted war stories. Surprising to me, there was no link to the politics of the day and the reasons to be or not to be in Vietnam or Afghanistan. Both men acknowledged the political facts, but viewed their obligation to serve with the men on their teams. To Bob, the men on his team were in the air to his left and right and behind. To Patrick, the men on his team were on the ground to his left and right and behind. One team was traveling at two or three miles an hours and the other team at close to supersonic speeds. The men on each other’s teams were the most important in the world to Bob and Patrick and with whom they would eat, play and live with on their return. God and country was a distant second.
A second round of beer was offered, but the three of us opted for coffee and soft drinks, and the sober talk turned to accomplishments. Specifics were minimal, but it was clear that Bob and Patrick wanted their “work” to mean something — they wanted to get it done as safely and efficiently as possible. Bob spoke of time over target and weapons delivery. Patrick spoke of nighttime missions with no casualties. The bureaucracy and its impediments to getting something done frustrated them, but they returned to accomplishments in spite of that. Getting the job done was the mission to Bob and Patrick.
Patrick will leave the Army in 2013, and laments the fact that the skills of an infantryman aren’t too marketable. Both Bob and I encouraged him to look beyond the specifics of his service to the broader lessons he learned of service, team and how to get things done. In fact, large corporations and government spend millions in training to instill employees with a clear sense of mission (service), the value of their co-worker teams, and the need to measure accomplishments.
When I studied economics in the 1960s, one of the great questions was why the United States didn’t have another depression after World War II with the millions of Veterans returning to the work force.
Maybe it was because those Veterans had a clear vision of mission and service, knew how to work with others and, most of all, knew how to make things happen.
Let’s recognize the tremendous value of our Veterans in our history and hope we can look to today’s Veterans to help us once again.