November 10, 2012 in Opinion

Guest opinion: What to say to a veteran

Bill Sawatzki

“What do you plan on saying to military veterans on Veterans Day that’s not shallow, saccharine, stupid or insincere?” asked Paul Turner in his Slice column shortly before Veterans Day in 2011. I wanted to answer but needed more than a couple of days to reply. My answer is as follows.

First, the easy ones. If the veteran is over 70 years of age, say “Thank you.” If the veteran is a woman, say “Thank you.” World War II and Korea won’t be refought in this essay, and women have always been under-represented in war drumming circles.

All other veterans should be saluted with “Never again.”

The history of the term “Never again” is checkered at best, and should be honorably repurposed. It was used as a justification for keeping Germany, after World War I, in poverty so they would never be able to rearm. More widely known, “Never again” was the motto of the Jewish Defense League promoting the formation of the country of Israel after the Holocaust during World War II.

I am a veteran. I was drafted and served as an infantryman in Vietnam, a country that President Dwight Eisenhower said would have elected Ho Chi Minh in a free election. Soldiers fought to keep that from happening. Keeping a nation from its self-determined destiny is a hard, dirty, heart-rending and, very often, deadly mission.

Remembering my younger self, I am amazed at what the writer Tim O’Brien called “The Things They Carried.” I carried an M-16, two bandoliers of ammunition clips, a couple belts of M-60 machine gun rounds, two or three hand grenades, a smoke grenade or two, an entrenching tool, extra socks, a couple days’ C-rations, some C-4 explosive to heat the C-rations, minipacks of army issue Marlboros and toilet paper, a beer or Pepsi as available, a Stars and Stripes newspaper, magazines and letters from home and always a paperback book. Often James Michener.

To keep weight at a minimum, unneeded items were left behind each morning: C-ration tins, empty cans and cartons, old socks, newspapers, magazines and book pages as read. Anything jettisoned would be inspected by a shadowing Vietnamese camp follower. I sometimes wondered if he read the discarded Michener pages. His actual and deadly purpose was to direct mortar fire or ambushes. If he was detected, an Air Force gunship called Spooky would kill him.

That is war. Both sides kept it up until we left by helicopter from the top of the embassy in Saigon. But that wasn’t our last war.

We have since been to Grenada, Panama, Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan. We went back to Iraq for no true reason, and we remain in Afghanistan. I say that’s enough. I say “Never again.”

So what would I say to a veteran that’s not shallow, saccharine, stupid or insincere? I can imagine attending, for instance, a Whitworth University graduation for a family member and sitting next to a Vietnamese veteran who is visiting to watch his granddaughter graduate. I would say to him, “Never again.” I might also ask if he had read any Michener.

Bill Sawatzki, of Liberty Lake, was awarded a Bronze Star with a V for valor and a Purple Heart for his combat tour that was shortened by mortar shrapnel. He can be reached at

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