Comrades in arms, forever
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on May 22, 2009 1:46 PM
Desert Storm veteran Robyn Golphin Sr. and other members of the local Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter bow their heads and pray before the group's monthly meeting.
From left, Theodore Ivey, Bill Graham, Mike Burris and Luby Hines talk about their experiences as members of the military and why the veterans organizations they belong to are far from becoming obsolete.
Thomas Marlow hasn't stepped into his military uniform in decades.
Bill Carr no longer carries a government-issued weapon.
And it has been years since the last time Theodore Ivey fixed the radar on a fighter jet.
But within places like the American Legion Post 11 headquarters -- an aging construct tucked off U.S. 117 within earshot of the Wayne County Fairgrounds -- their rank and experiences still matter.
Mike Burris straightens his back before saluting the men who showed up for a meeting of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
"We've got a long history," he said. "We don't need to let the past die."
The men in the room bow their heads and say a prayer -- for those who graced that building long before; for those who will be left to fill their seats when they, too, are gone.
As veterans of World War II, Vietnam and Korea grow older, many think about the fate of organizations like the VFW.
And they scoff at the notion that when they die, so, too, will veterans' needs for fellowship and a sympathetic ear.
"It helps your mind," Ivey said, looking down the line at the other men who fought in Vietnam. "I won't tell you what I did in Vietnam, what happened in Vietnam, but I'll tell him and him."
And that, he says, is why the young men and women currently fighting in two war theaters will one day fill the ranks of veterans' groups.
Bill Graham agrees.
"I could never talk about (Vietnam) with friends, family or anybody until I got associated with these groups," he said. "Until I found people who were in the same situation I was, I was closed off to everyone."
But the former commander of the local Disabled American Veterans chapter doesn't expect to see membership numbers spike for years.
"It takes a while for it to all settle in. It took me 25 years before I recognized the fact that I needed to be around you guys," he said. "So these young people coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, we might not talk about it in public, but we know the feelings -- what they are going through. We know these people coming back are going to have them, so we'll be here to reach out to them when they come back."
Some of those who fought in Operation Desert Storm are already joining their ranks.
Like Robyn Golphin, one of the VFW's newest members.
"The VFW can't die. It really can't," he said. "We're still here to serve our country and to serve each other."
They serve each other by fighting for a better quality of life for all veterans -- filing disability claims and lobbying politicians to vote in support of the nation's armed forces.
But their most important mission, being there for each other, is often much more difficult.
They still find it painful to relive those fire fights in Europe, the jungle and desert.
And certain things -- like the smell of kerosene or passing by a window -- still provoke reactions.
"If that was a glass wall right there, my back wouldn't be to it. If we go to a restaurant, we sit facing the front door," Graham said. "You'll walk down the street and constantly look behind you."
But they know no one else would understand.
"So you sit there and talk about it," Graham said. "And when you're able to do that, it brings things to the top that have been suppressed for years. And it helps."
So don't expect Luby Hines to give up on the men and women currently at war.
"To me, they are my brothers," the retired medic said. "We'll stand by their side."
And don't tell Graham the day veterans' organizations are rendered obsolete will come any time soon.
"As long as there are wars, there will be men like us," he said. "And we'll be manning the forts in our organizations and keep them going for when the people fighting come home."
Veterans, they say, just like members of America's current fighting force, will never back down from a comrade in need.
It's the same promise those who fought in two world wars upheld for them.
"As older guys, we have to make sure the younger people, the ones serving today, know we're here for them," Golphin said. "One day, they will have to take our places."
"And when they come home, we are going to be here," Burris added. "Whenever they need us."
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