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“Answering the Call”

Given by Rick Vandemark at the North Baltimore American Legion Veterans Day Banquet, Nov. 8, 2014

When I got the call from Sam Bretz to speak tonight (at the Annual Veteran’s Dinner at the Legion), I could not have been more surprised than if Billy Crystal was calling to ask if I would host the Academy Awards.

I have always wanted to speak at a high school graduation because I think I have something to offer.  After all I’m 50 years older than a high school senior. But to speak to the American Legion is a far different matter. There are people here who are actually older than I am, (You know who you are.) wiser than I am, and who have far more military experience than I do.

So, at first I was going to decline Sam’s invitation to speak tonight. But I just couldn’t do that. I like to think of myself as a patriot. So, I felt the need to answer the call – as when President Kennedy called us to, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”

So here I am at the American Legion in North Baltimore. I’ve got my fingers crossed, hoping that I have something of interest to say. I am also aware that The Ohio State University plays Michigan State at 8:00 so I will do my part to keep this short so we won’t miss kick off.

After reading Larry Slaughterbeck’s column in the North Baltimore News last week about “Archie” I was ready to tear up my speech and just read Larry’s column. If you have not read it, I urge you to make an effort to find a copy of last week’s News and read it.

As a junior at Greenfield McClain High School, I got the call to be a delegate to Buckeye Boys State. I answered that call. As you all know, Buckeye Boys State was founded by The American Legion, in 1935. Larry attended Boys State at Camp Perry in 1958 and I went to Boys State at Ohio University in 1961. As I wrote to my high school girl friend, I met a lot of “really swell guys.”  I know I wrote that, because 33 years later, at my 50th birthday party, she returned the letters to me with a nice little bow around them.

Being from a smaller school I really enjoyed getting to know boys from other schools, and it really broadened my horizons. Up until then my only encounter with boys from other schools was when I was trying to knock them on their butts on the football field.

In the mid sixties, I was walking to class across The Ohio State University campus when I heard some sort of pep rally or disturbance. As I drew closer, it turned out that someone was burning an American flag. I had never seen or even heard of such a thing. I was appalled. In my head, I heard a call to go over  and rescue the flag, but I did not answer that call. I rationalized that I would be late for class, or even miss class, or even end up in court, or expelled from school. None of those options were acceptable. So I walked on – without answering the call. I have always regretted that I did not try to stop that flag burning.

Two decades later in 1989, the American Legion answered that call and launched a campaign for a constitutional amendment against harming the flag. Although that campaign was unsuccessful in gaining a constitutional amendment, I am proud to be a member of an organization that that heard that call and fought that fight.

I heard the call again while at OSU and I enrolled in both Basic and Advanced ROTC. After graduation in 1969 I was given three choices. I could accept my ROTC commission as a second lieutenant. I could decline my commission and enter the Army as a private, or I could join the Medical Service Corps as a Captain. I answered the call and joined the Medical Service Corps.

I was sent to Fort Sam Houston (which is not in Houston but in San Antonio) for “Basic Training“. It was nothing like the basic training that would typically come to mind. The Medical Field Service School was composed of optometrists, podiatrists, pharmacists, psychologists, and others in health professions. Most of them had been drafted into the army and many of them were anti-war, anti-military, and anti-authority. It was the 60s. If you saw the movie “MASH“, it was much worse than that. I was one of only a half dozen in a company of 200 who had volunteered, or who had any military experience. There was only one who had served on active duty and he was selected as the student company commander. I was the first platoon leader.

The second platoon leader was a psychologist from Kent State. He was adamantly and openly anti-Viet Nam war. I do not remember his name, because when he was called on in class he would stand and call himself “Lieutenant Nukem, Sir” – as in “Nuke them. I guess that was a psychologist’s version of reverse psychology.

While we were at Fort Sam Houston, the Kent State National Guard shootings occurred. Lt. “Nukem” was outraged. He still had many friends at Kent State. The post commander sent a car to pick up Lt. “Nukem” and bring him the commander’s office. I’m not sure how the commander thought that meeting would go, but it was soon clear that the two had very different opinions about what happened. When the commander asked, “What is wrong with those students at Kent State?” Lt. “Nukem” went nuclear. I was not there, but I heard there was about a minute of screaming profanity from both sides and Lt.”Nukem” was returned to his quarters. The next day he was back standing in front of the second platoon, more anti-war than ever.

After orientation at Fort Sam. I served for two years at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, where there was a large induction station. Young men walked in one end of the building as civilians and walked out the other end as soldiers. There were ten other optometrists at the induction station, so over the next two years I worked with optometrists from all over the country. We saw recruits in the morning and civilians and dependents in the afternoon. Just like Buckeye Boys State it greatly broadened my horizons.

I have always been uncomfortable that I did not serve in Viet Nam. I did not feel that I had truly answered my call. It seemed unfair that my friends were serving in Viet Nam and I wasn’t. It was right here at this Legion Post that I found out that I was not alone. There are others who served in the military, but never in combat, and we share a secret guilt. I understand that that guilt is misguided and that we did answer the call and we did serve our country when, where, and how we were asked.

So, my request of you is this. When you hear a call, take action.

That call may be to help with your children’s home work,

or run for village council or school board,

or help with the Halloween Parade,

or give to the Save the North Baltimore Theater Fund,

or coach a little league team,

or join the Rotary or Lions,

or volunteer at school,

or be more involved with the American Legion.

Only you can hear your call. Only you can answer that call.

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