Photo Credit: Natalie Schreyer
Veterans Frank Lawrence, David Pauling, Keith M. Van Doren, Leroy G. Cougle, Linda Hardy and George L. Wellman gather in the living room of the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Washington.
By Natalie Schreyer
On 9/11, Linda Hardy, 67, sat down in her office and prayed. She had just watched colleagues in her department at the Bureau of Naval Personnel in Millington, Tennessee, become “hysterical” with fear as New York’s Twin Towers crumbled to the ground.
They were stunned. The enemy that struck the World Trade Center was a faceless nemesis. For the first time since Pearl Harbor, the U.S. had been attacked on its own soil.
But they knew what they had to do.
“We were gonna have to put the rubber to the road,” she said. “We were gonna have to do what we had been trained to do all our lives.”
Not all veterans from Hardy’s era share the same certainty about today’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
They may have served at a similar time in U.S. history, but their viewpoints differ on U.S. strategies, successes and failures.
Hardy, a retired active duty reservist in the U.S. Navy since she was a 20-year-old college graduate, said the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are “in some ways necessary.”
However, Marine Corps veteran David Pauling, 87, cited the religious differences between Sunni and Shiite Muslims as “a war you can’t win.”
Pauling, who moved to Washington to help elect Bernie Sanders to the presidency, said as long as there are dueling religious factions, “that’s a losing situation.”
After Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, Pauling volunteered with AmeriCorps and was sent to Alabama to help rebuild. He saw levels of poverty he could not imagine; people were living in “pure filth,” he said.
In the face of the devastation, his job as a contractor was to recover what he could save and rebuild the rest. Pauling said that while the so-called Greatest Generation rebuilt what its wars had destroyed, today, money is used for abuse instead of recovery.
Frank Lawrence, an 86-year-old Air Force veteran, said the U.S. military strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan lacks direction.
“If they had a program, it’d be fine, but they don’t have a program,” he said.
When asked what his strategy would be if he were the commander in chief, Lawrence was definitive. The first thing he would do, he said, is “look for another job.”
Lawrence said he doesn’t have enough education to make the decisions required of a commander in chief.
His 1949 deployment to England was a form of education, he said. At the time, the country was devastated from World War II bombing and strict food rationing was in place. Lawrence said he never lived with such shortages in the United States, even during the war. For a young man of 18, it was “one hell of an education, let me tell ya,” he said.
George Wellman, 71, of the U.S. Army, also referred to his military service as an education.
While he expressed regret that his first through 12th grade education was “lacking,” he said he has made up for it in his later years. As a boy in Alexander County, North Carolina, he attended the same local school for all 12 years, although the schools in neighboring Iredell County were better, he said. But at such a young age, he had no control over the choice.
“I think I got left behind,” he said.
Wellman was drafted in 1966. He went through basic training three times before becoming a military intelligence analyst. A soft-spoken yet unwavering man, he said he prefers to work quietly in the background.
He expressed hesitation when asked for his opinion on the two wars that have dogged the U.S. for more than a decade.
“An old soldier once told me, you make a decision by having a complete picture of the situation. I don’t have that,” Wellman said.
Navy veteran Leroy Cougle, who served for 20 years, said U.S. involvement in today’s wars should be all or nothing.
“My philosophy is if you’re going to get involved, get involved. If you’re not then get the hell out,”
-Navy veteran Leroy Cougle
“My philosophy is if you’re going to get involved, get involved. If you’re not then get the hell out,” he said.
Cougle, who referred to himself as a “snot-nosed 17-year-old kid” at the time he joined the Navy, said his service was the best thing that ever happened to him. It helped him mature, he said.
In the early days of his service, he mouthed off to a superior and got knocked to the ground. After that, he said he learned never to talk back.
If he were called to serve today, Cougle would willingly return.
However, he knows he would go back to a Navy that has changed forever. The tasks of his generation have now been automated. Commands are given at the push of a button.
“I don’t even understand the military now,” Cougle said.