My career has taken me to Kentucky, Texas, and California where I have witnessed floods, hurricanes, and wild fires, and I have heard, “Why did I escape these forces of nature, and why did others not?”
With the recent tornadoes in southwestern Ohio, we have more than enough survivor’s guilt to last a lifetime as daily we see images of the devastation and read accounts of the horrendous impact on the lives of so many. Our media has done an excellent job of informing all of us who were spared of the lives of those who weren’t so lucky. Throughout our lives we have heard the expression, “Can’t control Mother Nature,” and we know that even with exemplary preparation, we cannot always avoid those forces.
Some of you know that for several years I have been interviewing veterans. I have witnessed the embarrassment of some who have said to me, “You don’t want to interview me: I did nothing in the military.”
My response is always, “All stories are important. All who serve have important functions — whether they are driving a truck, issuing supplies, taking care of payroll or doing the myriad tasks that are required to keep the U.S. military functioning. And although service men and women might not be in a war zone, they are likely to be deployed to one at any time.”
My comments mean little, however, to those who have had their local paper delivered to them when they are stationed in a safe zone and see a photo of a person they recognize who has been killed in battle. Their questions refuse to be answered, “Why him? Why not me?” And then there are those who have seen those with whom they have formed one of the tightest human bonds possible fall in battle.
I recently attended the July breakfast of veterans at the Miami Valley Veterans Museum in Troy, Ohio, and said to the group of 50-plus in attendance, “Some of you know that I write for two major media outlets. If you have a story that needs to be told, please see me at the conclusion of the meeting. No resumes. Readers want to know about your life in the military, funny stories, sad stories.”
Several men gave me their contact information and asked me to call them. All the while, Dennis Becker of Troy sat across the table from me, silent.
Once the room had mostly emptied, Becker began to talk, indicating initially that he had a humorous story. Within minutes, however, I learned that his story of survivor’s guilt was the story I had been seeking for years.
Becker said, “I was drafted in January of 1966, and later that year I found myself at the Marine Corps Air Station El Toro in Orange County, California. My supply officer there, Warren O. Keneipp, was one of the finest men I have ever met: treated us like a friend, more like a father, checked on us regularly to make sure everything was going okay. I learned much later that he was killed in action in Vietnam. I struggle with that even today.”
At El Toro, one of Becker’s “very easy” jobs was “wheel watch.” This meant simply that he had to verify that incoming flights had their wheels down and that all looked normal. While Becker was on duty during bad weather, a pair of A-4 Skyhawks collided in midair and crashed while on glide path. A pilot and seven residents from an area retirement community were killed.
And then Becker was assigned to Da Nang, Vietnam, but he never made it there. He was reassigned to Okinawa “where recon units came from Vietnam to be reorganized and returned. Seeing them, I could only imagine what they had already gone through and would be sent back to.”
Discharged in 1968 as an E-4 Corporal, Becker indicates his military experience “could not have been much easier or safer. Because of that and what I had seen and heard from others, I felt guilty for having had it so easy. I didn’t openly talk about my service.
“I think the hardest thing for me to accept today is to sit at the monthly breakfast meetings at the museum, look around the room, try to imagine what others went through during their service and then come home and watch the news. I’m not sure what’s going on in Washington today is what all of them made sacrifices for. That bothers me.”
In conclusion, Becker told me a little story. A vendor at the Miami County Fair and other festivals, owner of Grumpy’s Barbeque, regularly displayed a Marine Corps flag and other Marine memorabilia at his food trailer. Becker is a fan of barbeque, so he always looked Grumpy up and began to talk with him, gradually opening up about the guilt he felt about having it so easy in the military.
Grumpy’s exact words are engraved in Becker’s consciousness: “If you went wherever they sent you and did whatever they told you to do, you have nothing to feel guilty about. Just be glad you didn’t have to go through what I did.”
Did Grumpy ever reveal what he went through? No, but Becker now wears hats with the Marine Corps logos , acknowledging his service. May Grumpy’s words and Becker’s story alleviate some of the pain of those of you who are plagued by survivor’s guilt.
Vivian B. Blevins. Ph.D., served as a community college president for 15 years in Kentucky, Texas, California and Missouri before returning to Ohio to teach telecommunication employees from around the country and students at Edison State Community College, and to work with veterans. Reach her at 937-778-3815 or firstname.lastname@example.org.