Kerrying On

Kerrying On: A Memorial Day Message

On December first, 1969, my wife and I sat glued to the radio. What event had us so interested? The reading of calendar dates. The radio announcer who had our attention was drawing pill-shaped capsules from a large, glass vessel. Each of the 366 capsules contained a piece of paper inscribed with a day of the year. Men, aged 19 to 25, who were born on the date contained in the first capsule drawn would be the first to be drafted into the US military. Those born on the second date drawn would be the next to be drafted, and so forth. Being drafted meant that, after a brief period of training, you had a good chance of being sent to fight (and possibly die) in Vietnam. That’s why Louise and I were so anxious. It was as if the country was playing roulette—for keeps—with my life.

Pundits speculated that military leaders would call to active duty the first 200 dates announced over the radio. Those holding one of the remaining 166 draft numbers would be allowed to continue on with their lives without having to get used to the practice of toting an M16. Louise and I prayed that the capsule containing my birth date would be the last one selected. Unlike our fathers, who had eagerly rushed into war after Pearl Harbor was savagely attacked, those of us waiting on the Vietnam lottery of 1969 were praying for peace and a high draft number. I certainly was.

“March 30th,” the announcer flatly announced. Those born on that day (my birthday) would be the 217th group to be drafted (if needed). This rather high number sounded safe to me, but was it really? When I telephoned my local draft board, the director told me she anticipated that Bellingham, Washington would draft to number (drum roll please) 216. If this turned out to be correct, one lousy number stood between me and a trip to Vietnam. I was not comforted.

As my senior year of college hurried along, the country’s need for soldiers increased, and the number 217 started to look increasingly shaky. It appeared as if I might graduate from college and be forced straight into harm’s way. Then, one day while walking through the student union building, I spotted a Coast Guard officer sitting at a table smiling at anyone who glanced his way.

“Are you about to graduate?” the fellow asked me. “Because if you are, and you want to serve your country for three years, you might qualify for Coast Guard officer training. And, by the way, did I mention the Coast Guard has a very small presence in Vietnam? Very small.”

I had never considered joining the Coast Guard, and becoming an officer was far from a sure thing. Under normal circumstances, I would have smiled politely and moved along. However, still hanging over me like a death threat were the words: “We’re expecting to draft to number 216.”

After discussing the pros and cons of joining the Coast Guard, my wife and I made our decision; I signed a contract with Uncle Sam. Then, a few weeks after graduating from college, I flew to Yorktown, Virginia where, for four months, I studied navigation, port security, piloting, and other things aquatic.

At the end of the fourteenth week of training, while my fellow officer candidates and I gathered in the mess hall for dinner, a senior official read aloud the duty station to which each candidate would soon be assigned. The lottery continued. Some were ordered to sea, others to land, and yes, a few started down a path that would eventually put them in charge of a vessel in Vietnam.

After working his way down the alphabet, the Coast Guard assignment herald kicked my heart into a full gallop when he announced my name, paused for effect, and then shouted: “TRASUPCEN, Alameda.” I couldn’t believe my good fortune! I was being assigned to serve at the Coast Guard’s West Coast supply center located across the bay from San Francisco. This was a highly coveted, three-year shore station. It was located thousands of miles from the perilous waters of Vietnam and only a short trip across the Bay Bridge to one of the most magical cities in the world.

For the next three years, I worked with a mix of career Coast Guard professionals and short-time folks such as myself. We did our best to provide support for both normal and wartime operations. Nevertheless, the war we supported was enormously unpopular (thus, the need for a draft). Most of the enlisted men who reported to me made a habit of ridiculing the government for forcing them to take an unwanted hiatus from their promising civilian careers. They complained endlessly.

Despite the unrelenting harangue, the individuals I worked with faithfully fulfilled their assignments. They had made a promise and they kept it. And they did so in the face of a hostile civilian population. Each morning, we “Coasties” arrived at work dressed in civilian clothes, switched into our uniforms, and did our jobs. We generally chose not to wear our uniforms to and from the base to avoid being ridiculed. The country had called and we had responded—but when we were spotted, we were often mocked. After all, we were willing participants in what many people believed was an unjustified conflict.

One day, while dashing to the nearby Berkley library to secure a book I needed for a night course I was taking, I didn’t think to switch out of my uniform. As I walked up Telegraph Avenue, people glared at me as if I were—well, a “killer”—as they so freely called me. One guy, clearly disgusted by my involvement in what he must have deemed an illegal war, spit on me. It was mortifying.

During the decades that followed, I viewed the three years I served in Alameda with uncertainty. (By the way, the 1969 draft only extended to lottery number 195. Had I not volunteered, I wouldn’t have been drafted.) I admired the people I served with and, to this day, I’m proud of the work we did supporting our fellow guardians—some commanding boats in harm’s way, some battling the seas, and some working in offices miles from danger. But to be truthful, as the Vietnam conflict wound down, nobody was chomping at the bit to make heroes out of the veterans of the “unpopular war.” And while it’s true that my mates and I didn’t exactly strike back at enemies who had viciously bombed our sacred shores—we did accept the call to serve and faithfully performed our assignments.

Nowadays, I watch uniformed soldiers return home to the roar of cheering civilians, and I cheer right along with them. I’m glad today’s soldiers don’t feel the need to travel incognito. And thanks to a recent event, I have ceased to question my own participation in what had been such an unpopular conflict. After forty-five years of wondering about my choice, the uncertainty of taking part in a controversial war finally came to an end in a decisive and unexpected way. My teenage granddaughter, Kylee, of her own accord, texted me the following message: “Happy Veteran’s Day, Grandpa. I love you. Thank you for serving our country!”

That’s all I needed to hear. It turns out that gratitude from a single grandchild trumps the ridicule of any number of critics. With this in mind, I now pass on my granddaughter’s (and my own) thanks to today’s guardians—from front-line leathernecks, to keyboard warriors—who all deserve kudos. All play an important role in keeping us safe. So, thanks to all of you heroes out there who, when the call to serve came, eagerly answered, “You can count on me!”

We do, every single day.

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Kerry Patterson

Cofounder of VitalSmarts, Kerry has coauthored four New York Times bestselling books as well as co-designed the company’s line of award-winning training programs. As author of our most popular column, Kerrying On, Kerry shares his vision, experience, and advice through fun and insightful stories from his past. read more

25 thoughts on “Kerrying On: A Memorial Day Message”

  1. Memorial Day is a day for remembering and honoring military personnel who died in the service of their country, particularly those who died in battle or as a result of wounds sustained in battle. While those who died are also remembered, Veterans Day is the day set aside to thank and honor ALL those who served honorably in the military — in wartime or peacetime. In fact, Veterans Day is largely intended to thank LIVING veterans for their service, to acknowledge that their contributions to our national security are appreciated, and to underscore the fact that all those who served — not only those who died — have sacrificed and done their duty.

  2. Thanks, Kerry, for sharing your experience. My father and I and my son all served in harm’s way on behalf of the needs of this great nation and champion anyone and his/her family that has.

    I notice the article is entitled “A Memorial Day Message”. Could I ask you to consider something, however? Memorial Day is really for revering our war dead and revering their supreme sacrifice. 11 November is for remembering ALL who do or have served. I would like to suggest that if we spent more time shifting our focus properly on each date that Memorial Day’s deep meaning attached to the ultimate selfless sacrifice would be properly separated from the day in November when we pay respect to all veterans, including those who are no longer with us.

    Stories of selfless service for sure need their time in the sun, to spark similar comments from all grandchildren, but dedicated respect from those same grandchildren towards those to whom they can no longer say anything also needs dedicated attention.

    I do not wish to detract from your message, Kerry, let’s just shift these kind to November and use Memorial Day to memorialize those to whom we can no longer say thank you.

    Thank you.

    Bruce Funk
    Major, United States Army

  3. Thank you for your service. What a touching story. I remember my own father, an Air Force veteran, relating how he had to change out of his uniform for his flight home from Viet Nam. I contrast that with my experience returning home from Iraq in 2008 – worlds apart.

  4. Kerry – I also want to thank you for your service! I do not care what war the US was, or is, in – anyone serving is a Hero! You/They have protected us and our rights. War is not glorious, but our Soldiers standing up for us need to be commended for what they had to endure! Thank you!

  5. Kerry, as always, you do not disappoint. What a beautiful message. I can only imagine what you and your wife went through trying to make this decision. Thank you for sharing, and for serving our country.

  6. Kerry, Nice post. I too recall when those serving were encouraged to travel out of uniform for security reasons. Today we look at those in a uniform and are thankful for their service, sacrifice and commitment.

    Back in the day nearly 10% of our population served. so many of us knew someone who served. Today it is around 1%, so any do not realize or appreciate what that sacrifice really means.

    And let’s not forget however, for everyone one in a uniform there are mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and children who also “serve”. They are living a life that often means the person in uniform is not in their life for long periods of time.

  7. Nice tail. I always thought the derision and invective showered upon the returning was misdirected. They weren’t the ones in charge of policy and more than likely weren’t wealthy enough to avoid service. In some ways it makes me consider mandatory 2 year service requirement s for all 18 year olds.
    And by the way, as a graduate of Berkeley, I am compelled to point out that you misspelled Berkeley.

  8. Kerry, thank you for your service to our country. The harassment and ridicule soldiers in the Vietnam era received from fellow Americans is an embarrassment. God bless.

  9. God Bless you and thank you for your service. My husband enlisted in the Coast Guard in 1966 and served through 1970. He served for a year in the Phillipines in a 1 mile by 2 mile island out in nowhere, and various other stations.

  10. It is important to remember those times and the angst of classmates in high school and college with student deferrals and the ones who served and gave their lives. Thank you for sharing your story and for your service.

  11. Thank you for serving our country. We have not always honored our veterans, who whether you agree or disagree, fought for us and many lost their lives for us. Thank you for sharing this with us.

  12. Thanks, Kerry. I was already in my second year of Advanced Army ROTC at Ohio State when the numbers were drawn. My number for March 10 was 351–very unlikely to be called, but I had made a commitment and decided to stick it out. When I graduated in September 1971 I was offered an infantry commission–not my choice. Rather than not accept it like some of my buddies, I believed God would keep me safe and he did. My class had graduated at the peak of reserve officer commissionings–so many that I served only 3 months on active duty for training at Ft. Benning. Vietnam was winding down, and they just didn’t have slots for us all! Had I not accepted, I would never have known God’s plan to keep me safe and have my wonderful family give me those precious Veterans Day greetings and hugs every year.
    Thanks, Kerry, for all your powerful and uplifting messages.

  13. Regardless of the conflict or the branch of service one serves in I commend all who have served or currently are serving our great country. We honor all who have served and this weekend we especially honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice. We are a fortunate nation and owe a debt of gratitude for the freedoms that have been provided to us by these heroes.

  14. Thanks to you and to all who have served our country. We honor those who have sacrificially served our country (and their families) regardless of whether we agree with the conflict or purpose of service. Thank you for reminding all of us of what is due to our veterans. (I agree with a previous poster that sometimes I wonder if a mandatory 2-year service might provide a much needed reality check and appreciation for folks.)

  15. Thank you for your service. Thank you for your post and the candor and care with which you wrote it. The worth of our freedoms are seldom understood by those who take such liberties for granted in using them yet so offer so little gratitude or responsibility for defending them. I am grateful for you, and all of those like you, that have ensured the freedom of all of us. Whether citizens choose to spit in defiance, or to salute in silent honor, you sir have contributed with dignity, to enable both to be possible.
    This is truly worth honoring and sustaining, today as well as any other day of the year. I don’t need to wait until Monday, or until November to show my gratitude to those alive, or those who have passed on.
    I won’t worry about what day it is, Kerry – I’ll just say thank you today because I can say it. I don’t need a holiday to let me know whether I need to or not. I feel this way 24x7x365. Thank you.

  16. Dear Kerry, There were those of us who did back and support you men and women who served in Vietnam. I was in my senior year of high school in 1969 and we were to write a theme in English class comparing Beowulf to a modern day hero. I chose you brave men serving in the Vietnam war. Thank you to all of you. Sr. Helen Harry

  17. Thank-you for your Service Kerry! As a Coastie myself and a big fan of your writing I’m proud to have worn the same uniform as you!

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