BROOKLYN — It was probably appropriate that Monday, Memorial Day, the Times’ “Names of the Dead” box, listing U.S. GI’s killed in Afghanistan, was unusually lengthy. Ten men joined America’s long, long parade of the honored dead while, elsewhere, in towns all over the U.S., Memorial Day was commemorated by small bands of aged American Legionnaires and VFW geezers in musty uniforms, saluting at granite stones etched with the names of the mostly forgotten fallen.
In D.C., President Obama laid a wreath or two, and the wild hogs of Rolling Thunder held their annual traffic jam in tribute to the quintessential lost cause, the imaginary prison camps of North Vietnam. A footnote to Rolling Thunder — one of America’s great oddities — was Sarah Palin’s effort to horn in and cadge some street cred from the biker constituency. She screwed up by trying to lead the parade. Said Ted Shpak, Rolling Thunder’s “national legislative director” (and probably the guy responsible for all those sad black flags above every fire station and post office), “If she wanted to come on the ride, she should have come in the back.”
Or, as Lloyd Bentsen might have said, “Governor, you’re no Rosa Parks.”
None of this political theater offered much succor to those of us reading those ten names in the Times. The one who stayed with me even after I hurriedly turned the page was Sgt. Louie A. Ramos Velazquez, from Camuy, Puerto Rico. He had served in the glory-soaked 101st Airborne. Sgt. Velazquez was 39 years old.
I first paid heed to lists of the honored dead when the grizzled gearheads of Rolling Thunder were my pink-cheeked contemporaries and the Pentagon’s great threshing machine of cannon fodder was Vietnam. In those days, they didn’t issue names in the daily press, just numbers — “body counts.” For example, as recorded by Rick Perlstein in his book, "Nixonland," 44 kids were killed in ‘Nam on 12 March 1968. The next day, 53 kids won an eventual spot on Maya Lin’s black wall in Washington; the next day, 62; 41 the day after. On 16 March, 48 died — “five of them shy of their nineteenth birthday.”
Mostly, we killed kids in Vietnam, a long black line of boys sacrificing their lives before they ever got to vote. In a way, it’s better, easier, to kill kid soldiers, still in their teens, because the brevity of their lives has given them little notion of how long and rich and surprising life can be. Kill an 18-year-old and, as his blood spills into the mud and his final breath hisses from his throat, he hardly imagines what he’s missing out on.
I guess that’s why I turned back to Sgt. Velazquez’ page-bottom, agate-type death-blurb. Here was no kid. Louie Velazquez had been in the U.S. Army long enough to make full sergeant, which takes quite a while. He was a “lifer.” Almost 40, he knew all the secrets that it takes forty years to discover and all the answers it takes forty years to figure out. Sgt. Velazquez was probably married — which more than doubles his tragedy. He probably had children, another doubling. And he was old enough that if he’d started early, there might even be an infant in the world who now will never call him “Grandpa,” or “Papi.”
Sgt. Velazquez had enough years in the service that he could start thinking about mustering out, collecting his GI pension and starting a new career, maybe including a few years of long-delayed higher learning — an education appreciated by few school-weary 18-year-olds but cherished by anybody as old as Louie Velazquez.
The Sarge, at 39, had probably seen many friends die, most of them kids, and with each fallen comrade, he had to feel a deeper appreciation that he was still alive — and not just alive. He wasn’t yet forty. He still had half a life to live. To so many of his troops, he was the “old man,” but in the world beyond Afghanistan, the Army and the blood brotherhood of his particular combat hell, he was in his youthful prime.
Until they killed him. And sent his name in to the Pentagon, to be passed on to the Times as soon as his family was told that he’d be coming home in a box.
It occurred to me Monday, Memorial Day, that a real tribute to Louie Velazquez — and all his brothers — rather than an obit in the Times or an etching on a polished slab, would be a new law. The Sgt. Velazquez Law would require that no one is eligible for the United States armed forces until at least the age of 39 years.
Louie’s Law would stipulate that we no longer kill kids who’ve never really lived, who have little idea of what they’ll miss if they die, who believe the crap they hear from politicians and recruiters about flag and country but truly have no idea why they’re out in God-knows-where killing strangers and shoveling up the remains of their buddies.
I understand the consequences. If our generals can only go after men with wives and families, homes and mortgages, careers in progress and dreams yet unfulfilled, with grandkids on the way and vacation plans in July — well, they won’t get many recruits. And the ones they get will probably need rehab before basic training.
We might not even get enough bodies to wage even one half-decent war. And we might have to fight it locally — like in Rhode Island.
Which is, of course, the point. We have history’s largest armed force, the world’s fattest military budget (by a factor of six), and three wars running — eating up the future of our children — because the Pentagon is allowed to recruit our children. We dress our kids in khaki, hand them deadly weapons and teach them how to kill before they have — through life’s natural course — learned how to think. Before they have any sense of the millions of choices life provides, we talk them — we even bribe them now — into choosing death. Like their favorite childhood villain, we suck them to the Dark Side.
Yes, many survive, learn skills and emerge from the armed forces better prepared for life. Many of them grow up cleaner, stronger, healthier in the service than they would have turned out if left to their own devices in the disorderly civilian world.
It’s true that many soldiers — most, indeed — cheat death. Sgt. Louie Velazquez of the heroic 101st, made an art of cheating death. He was a lifer and a survivor.
Until last week.