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The Meaning of Service

  • Published
  • By Maj. Carrie Kerner
  • 27th Special Operations Wing Public Affairs

Some years ago, I had the honor of meeting novelist and Vietnam veteran Tim O’Brien. He was doing a reading of his book, “The Things They Carried,” a novel about the physical items the soldiers carried on their patrols in Vietnam and the psychological burdens they carried after the war. According to his book, “Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to. It was what had brought them to the war in the first place, nothing positive, no dreams of glory or honor, just to avoid the blush of dishonor.”  Many men were drafted and returned from Vietnam physically intact, but mentally broken. O’Brien’s book gave me a better picture of the grim reality of life during and after the Vietnam War.

The stories I heard from my dad, John Kerner, were nothing like Tim O’Brien’s book. My dad was drafted in 1970 and enlisted in the Air Force. Instead of being sent to Vietnam with the Army, the Air Force sent him to Greece to be a cook. I grew up looking at my parents’ slides, the predecessor to photos. I wasn’t old enough to know how to run a slide projector but I had a slide viewer thingy. When I put the slide in, a light turned on, and I look into it like binoculars. I Googled “slide viewer thingy” and discovered it was called a Trident Viewer. Through this blue box, I saw slides of my mom with long blonde hair past her waist, wearing bell bottom pants, standing in front of Greek ruins like the Acropolis. I saw happy images of my parents traveling Europe. As a child, I thought military service was about traveling the world.

I don’t have a long family history of military service. My dad served for a few years during the Vietnam War and separated long before I was born. My dad’s brother, Lavern Kerner, served in Vietnam but he would never speak of it. I had a few cousins who joined the military, but I certainly had no military upbringing. My parents never pushed me to join the military and it honestly wasn’t my lifelong dream. However, my parents had always preached that I needed to go to college so I could get a good job and not have to worry about money.

It was never a question of if I would go to college, it was how I would pay for it. I did well in school and was involved with extra-curricular activities, but I didn’t score high enough on standardized tests to get a full academic scholarship. My high school guidance counselor, Tim Davis, encouraged me to apply for all the scholarships I could.

I went line-by-line through a book from the Lexington Public Library called “Scholarships for Dummies.”  The book was frustrating. I didn’t qualify for anything. I wasn’t a minority, I wasn’t short enough, I wasn’t left-handed, I didn’t have a terminal illness, my parents weren’t in jail, and my mom refused to be a lesbian so I couldn’t apply for the lesbian mom scholarship, she said something about being married to my dad. Bottom line, I was too “average,” but I still didn’t have the money to pay for college and I didn’t want to be in debt the rest of my life. I think I applied for around 60 scholarships at the local and national level. Lexington High School didn’t have Junior ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps), but I heard ROTC had scholarships. I applied for and eventually received an Air Force ROTC scholarship to attend Boston University that committed me to serve at least four years.

Over ten years after commissioning, I’m still proudly serving as an aircraft maintenance officer in the 27th Special Operations Wing at Cannon Air Force Base in Clovis, New Mexico. My parents and relatives have always supported me, attending my commissioning in Boston in 2007 and every promotion ceremony since.

Soon after I pinned on the rank of Major in the Air Force, my dad found out that he was selected to attend the Dawson County Hero Flight to Washington D.C. in September 2017. We had seen newspaper articles about the Hero Flights, applied, and been on the waiting list for about a year. My dad had only been to D.C. once, back in the 1970s, so he had not seen most of the memorials. His favorite part of the trip was that I was able to go with him. Luckily the hat my dad always wore with my picture in a plastic sleeve on the front had ripped and they provided Hero Flight hats for the veterans. Crisis averted.

The trip to D.C. with 25 Vietnam-era veterans was an eye-opening experience, especially for someone like me who currently serves in the military under very different circumstances. I watched the veterans take pencil rubbings of names of friends, relatives and comrades they lost in Vietnam, listed among the more than 58,000 names on the wall. That equates to the entire population of Dawson County, plus over 10,000 more.

We toured the Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson Memorial, Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, and Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial. We toured the U.S. Navy Memorial, U.S. Air Force Memorial, and Arlington National Cemetery. We saw the Changing of the Guard and had four of our veterans perform a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. We also toured the Vietnam, Korean, and Lincoln Memorials by night.

We got off the bus in front of the U.S. Capitol where we were greeted by Nebraska Senator Deb Fischer and Nebraska Congressman Adrian Smith. Congressman Smith led us on a tour of the U.S. Capitol and we were able to sit in the House Chamber.   

We had a surprise tour of the Pentagon, led by a police officer who was originally from Kearney, Nebraska and works security at the Pentagon. He took us down the Vietnam Remembrance Hallway of the Pentagon with many artifacts on display. The veterans recognized the uniforms they had worn and equipment they used in Vietnam. This recognition brought out stories from some of the veterans.  

In the Vietnam Hall of the Pentagon, Alan Anderson, from Cozad, Nebraska, was staring into a display case. I walked up next to him and he pointed to a picture of a teletype and told me he used one like it. I found out he had served in the 5th Special Forces Group in E Company, the signal company. Alan was a communication center specialist who used a teletype to type and read messages in code on yellow tape. He wore the green beret displayed in the case and had an AK-47, like the one in the case. The rifle wasn’t exactly standard issue, but it was more reliable than the U.S. military issued weapons. Alan worked with a fierce band of mountain men called the Montagnards. Alan had the same green tiger patch of the Montagnards that was displayed in the case. He also told me they gave him a thin brass “friendship” bracelet, just like the one they gave John Wayne when he visited Vietnam. I Googled John Wayne and apparently cowboys always wear long sleeves. But the pictures with his sleeves up, even in old age, show John Wayne wearing a thin brass bracelet like Alan’s on his right arm.   

The most influential part of the tour wasn’t seeing the monuments or memorials, it was hearing the stories of veterans like Alan who served in Vietnam. I was told a story about a Vietnamese woman holding a baby with one arm and grenade launcher with the other arm, shooting at him and his comrades. The veteran showed me the scar from the shrapnel caused by the woman holding the baby. I watched airport security using a metal detector wand to scan a Vietnam veteran’s legs, confused at the beeping when scanning his bare legs. The wand was detecting metal from shrapnel still lodged in his legs. The veteran called this his “million dollar wound,” because it got him a ticket home from the war but didn’t kill him. Some of these men, who kept silent for so many years, were freely sharing stories almost too horrific to imagine, let alone survive.        

Service during the draft, during Tim O’Brien and Alan Anderson’s time, was very different than it is today. Now the U.S. military is an all-volunteer force. I feel so fortunate to serve during a time when the majority of the American public is grateful for the military. No one spits on me or calls me a baby killer. Instead, people stop me in the grocery store, the airport, anywhere I go in uniform, to shake my hand and thank me for my service.

My dad wore an “Air Force Veteran” hat on a solo vacation to the Grand Tetons earlier this year. When he tried to pay for his dinner in Jackson, Wyoming, the waitress told him the man who was at the table next to him, paid for his dinner before he left. His voice was catching when he told me the story and how he couldn’t believe that a complete stranger would pay for his dinner. The veterans on the Hero Flight couldn’t believe the welcome receptions for them at the Heartland Museum of Military Vehicles in Lexington and the airports in Omaha and Washington D.C.

Despite the differences in our service and our reception by the American people, there is one constant that crosses generations and wars. Service always requires sacrifice. It’s not just about traveling the world. It’s not about me or when I have to move or where I want to live. Military service is about sacrifice, up to and including your life.