Petzal: Thoughts On Memorial Day

My guide in New Zealand, David Blainey, had served ten years as a soldier in that country's "forces," as the army is called, and would have stayed another ten had not an ankle betrayed him. He loved the service, and one afternoon he asked me what was the most important thing I had gotten out of my time in the U.S. Army.

That took some thought. I had a very easy time and spent most of it in front of a chalkboard, teaching. I learned public speaking, and the Army system of education, which is the most effective in the world, and I learned how to spit shine, and I learned that there were men who had never gone to college who were better soldiers than I would ever be. And all of that was important.

But the most important thing, I told David, was meeting men whom you would die for. There are very few of them, but they are unmistakable. In my case it was a Lieutenant Colonel who later made full Colonel, and in David's case it was a Brigadier for whom David was a driver.

I don't know exactly what confers this quality on an officer or an NCO. The supreme example in the history of the U.S. military is Robert E. Lee, but no one has really gotten a handle on the unknowable Marse Robert. The best example I can give you is Major Dick Winters as portrayed by the British actor Damian Lewis in Band of Brothers. Winters was nearly worshipped by the men he commanded, and Lewis caught this to an uncanny degree.

In any event, human beings such as this are exceedingly rare, and getting to meet one is a privilege that you will not have in civilian life. For me, it was worth the years in a green suit, and then some.