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Wharton: Some thoughts for Veterans Day

Published November 9, 2012 9:11 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Bluffdale • I was among the last Americans who faced being drafted.

As a college student with a deferment, I spent more time considering my future career than thinking about joining the military. But the Vietnam War raged on with no apparent end.

Not knowing the modern draft would end in 1973 when I graduated from the University of Utah and realizing that I could be vulnerable with a draft number of 81, I jumped when given the chance to enlist in the Utah Army National Guard as a public information specialist in 1970. I didn't feel particularly patriotic. I was simply being practical as I mapped out my future.

I was on active duty when National Guard troops killed four students at Kent State University. It was a weird time, with protestors including my future wife in the streets. Frankly, I wasn't much of a soldier. I figured I would spend my required six-year stint in the Guard and get out.

But life often takes unexpected turns. About the time those six years were up, we had three kids in 18 months. National Guard pay helped us at Christmas and allowed us to take a few inexpensive vacations. So I remained in the Army.

Much to my surprise and I'm sure to the shock of many I served with, I was given a direct commission to first lieutenant. I would retire as a captain in 1991, with over 21 years of service that took me to places I never dreamed of seeing.

I rode a tank through Germany, visited Panmunjom where North Korean propaganda blared from speakers across the border, experienced West Point, spent annual training in Panama and Honduras and, right before I got out, served as an escort for a media pool deploying with an American Fork water purification unit to Saudi Arabia for the first Gulf War.

Trying to glean some meaning from my own service and to honor those who sacrificed far more for our country, I spent a recent morning visiting the Utah Veterans Cemetery and Memorial Park near Camp Williams.

Save for a caretaker and some construction workers, I was the only one there. I looked at the starkly simple grave makers, contemplated the bronze statue of George Wahlen that honored Utah's seven Medal of Honor winners, examined some of the military memorabilia in glass cases and peered through the windows at the Carol O. Scholz Memorial Chapel.

Mostly, I was drawn to the Freedom Shrine, a collection of copies of important documents and speeches such as the Bill of Rights, the U.S. Constitution, the Gettysburg Address and the Declaration of Independence. I wrote down John F. Kennedy's famous words from his inaugural speech in 1960:

"Ask not what your country will do for you — ask what you can do for your country."

Thinking about that statement, I knew in my heart that my 21 years in the Guard returned far more to me than I ever gave to my country. When veterans are honored at public events, I always feel strange standing up, knowing the history of the soldiers who made real sacrifices, sometimes giving their lives.

As we prepare to celebrate another Veterans Day next week after a contentious, divisive election, I fear we have veered far from asking what we can do for our country. Many complain about our taxes and politicians and give little thought to public service. We pay lip service to our veterans, but do we really support them? And how many families do you know that have a son or daughter serving in the military currently?

As I drive by flags honoring our veterans and their service next week, I suspect I might shed a tear or two, for my late father who served in the Navy during World War II and for all the men and women who sacrificed their personal well being so we might be free.

I might think about my service, too, and realize it was far too little sacrifice for the privilege of living in this great country.

wharton@sltrib.com

Twitter @tribtomwharton