IT’S NOT THAT SIMPLE: Thank you for your service. It IS that simple

This column is a companion to the WSBS-AM radio show, “It’s Not That Simple.”  (Listen to the podcast here.)

Although Pedro and I both serve on elected town boards, we are not speaking for those boards or for the town in any capacity. We are only representing ourselves on the radio show and in this column.

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On this week’s show, in recognition of Veterans Day, we did something a little different and took a break from exploring the problems facing Great Barrington.

Americans appreciate the sacrifice and service of the men and women who serve in the military. Treating veterans with respect and gratitude is a given. It IS that simple. So to honor our veterans on Veteran’s Day we wanted to go a little deeper.

The questions that first came to us were: What is it like to go from a disciplined, ordered, rigid military life to the loosey-goosey civilian world, and do you walk around, post military service, constantly aware that you are a veteran? Then it occurred to us that these may not even be relevant questions. So, we reached out to experts to explore the duality of citizen and soldier.

We invited two local veterans from different generations of service to help us explore the human experience, not necessarily of combat, but of the act of service itself, the differences between the “society” of the military and that of civilian life. They are obviously not speaking for all veterans here, but they will give us insight.

Sergeant Major (Retired) Michael King spent 21 years on active duty in the U.S. Army as a military policeman. He deployed to Iraq (OIF) twice during his career and has been awarded the Bronze Star Medal. Currently, he is Commander of the Lenox VFW and is a National Veteran Service Officer at the Pittsfield Veterans Outreach Center.

John Kvocka served from 1968-1974 as an Army Reservist, during the Vietnam era. His basic training took place at Fort Polk, Louisiana, followed by advanced training as a Combat Medic. During the war he served stateside, tending the wounded in seven different Army hospitals. He was discharged in November of 1974 with the rank of Specialist 5. He currently serves as the Post Commander for the American Legion post in Housatonic.

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INTS: Did we get that right? This is a foreign language to a lot of us. For example, what does OIF mean?

MK: The military is full of acronyms. It’s Operation Iraqi Freedom, which generally speaking, covered all combat operations in Iraq until September 2010 when it turned into OND, Operation New Dawn, before we pulled out completely.

INTS: We introduced both of you as retired. Michael, you’re pretty young for a retired guy.

MK: When you join the Army at 18 and you manage to do 20 or 21 years you can be retired before you’re 40. I’m not fully, truly retired. I’m just retired from the armed forces.

INTS: As Veterans Day approaches, you’ll probably get a lot of comments from people about your service. We are starting with the assumption that gratitude and respect are automatic. We want to have a discussion about what it’s like to have served and what it’s like to transition back into civilian society.

You joined the service and you went into what we assume is a completely different world. You have rank and you’ve got discipline and you have to follow orders and know your role. There’s not a lot of questioning of authority while you’re in, correct? When you come out it’s completely different.

MK: John and I probably have very different experiences when it comes to our initial training in the Army, but the basic aspect of it is that you go to the exact opposite of freedom. You go to a dictatorship-type arena. You do everything you are told to do. You don’t get to have a choice, or, you have a choice but it will usually have some pretty significant consequences to prevent you from really having a choice. One of those consequences can be as simple as being separated from the service because you did not adapt to that military lifestyle.

JK: In the armed forces, you have to take direction and orders from someone that’s above you. When you get back to civilian life, that’s really not necessary. You have to respect the people around you, join in, work with people to accomplish tasks, and be a positive active member of society. But you don’t get as many direct orders that you have to not question. Our [civilian] world questions a lot of things and you have the right to do that. We live in America.

Having gone to Catholic schools in my early years, I learned a lot about discipline and respect so I had a little bit of a head start when I went in.

INTS: You probably didn’t use the word “why” very often.

MK:  When you reach a certain rank, you can say, “why.”

INTS: The service is a society, and you have goals in that society that you all are accomplishing together. Is that type of discipline and that type of hierarchical structure necessary in order to accomplish those goals?

MK: It’s absolutely necessary. The job of the United States armed forces is to fight and win America’s wars. Obviously, we don’t want to go to war unless absolutely necessary, but in order to do that, in a high-stress environment, you don’t want folks questioning what needs to be done. You want them to act. You want them to act in an unhesitating manner and that’s why there is so much discipline. There is so much dictating of what must be done and how it must be done. So you unhesitatingly react to situations so that: (1) if it’s a combat situation you prevent any loss of life or further loss of life, and (2) you engage the enemy and stop them.

INTS: It’s really important for everyone in the group to have a feeling of trust.

MK: Absolutely!

INTS: Michael, you experienced that for 21 years. John, your experience was a little different, but you were still in that structure. When you come out, how do you deal with a civilian life that is less structured? People out here change their minds, are not as disciplined.

JK: I guess I’ll give my two cents. I do believe that we need to do more when military folks come out to help them adjust to a whole new lifestyle. They’ve been trained to act and not to do things that they want to do. So, I think we need more time. It could take six months. It takes nine months or so to get trained for what you’re going to do in the armed services but when you come out they don’t give you a lot of time to adjust. There is help for veterans to adjust, [organizations like Mike’s] but unfortunately, a lot of veterans don’t reach out.

INTS: Since you’ve done it more recently Mike, what is the discharge training like?

MK: Everyone in the military is different. The way that they react to obstacles is different. One of the things that’s bred into us in the military is a sense of self-confidence, a can-do attitude. I can do this. There’s no obstacle I can’t overcome. But that’s within that [military] environment, and the support structures are built into it. When you separate from the service, you don’t necessarily have those instant support structures and lanes to follow to take care of whatever you need to take care of. So that becomes a challenge.

I retired almost five years ago and about two years before I retired, (and if you’re not retiring, a year before you separate from the service), you go through TAP, the Transition Assistance Program. It’s a two-week program with discussions about going to college if you choose to do that, or about what you are going to do for employment. How do we get your resume together? Most installations also have a connection with a veteran service officer like myself to help people get everything situated for VA claims that they may decide to put in.

The unfortunate thing is, two weeks is not a lot of time. Most folks going through it, myself included, had eyes glassed over. What would I rather be doing than sitting there? So there is kind of a conundrum. If you provide too much [discharge training] it loses value. You also pull soldiers away from the mission readiness of that unit. By the other token, as John said, you train for up to nine months to prepare for your initial job in the military and you don’t train to separate. Going back to the mission of the military, to fight and win America’s wars, there’s nothing in that about coming home, right? So where is the balance? It’s a big challenge.

INTS: So, within that structure, it seems that there is, and this may not be the right word, a nurturing structure in the military that doesn’t exist in the real world.

MK: It exists, but it’s not in a manner that is available to everybody. It’s called mentorship. I think most of us can identify a mentor in our lives. So, you were separated from the military. Maybe you went to combat 4 years, you lived, you’re invincible. You can do anything, right? But the reality of it is, you went in the military and you … didn’t do it on your own. You did it with a team, a group of people working together to make that happen. But somehow a lot of us feel when we come back, “I can do this all on my own. I don’t need anybody’s help.” So how do you bridge that gap? How do you convince people that, hey, you know what, there are assets out here for you. There are people here to help you. You’ve just got to ask.

JK: One very good thing, although it’s not enough, is the work Mike’s doing with veterans. In the American Legion and the VFW, we work to help veterans. Unfortunately, there are not enough Mikes and so we will continue to need to help each other.

INTS: Both of you have stayed connected to veterans activities. So I assume the two of you walk around feeling like veterans, you identify yourselves as being veterans. Is that true and do you think that’s a common thing? Does it become part of who you are? How close to the surface is that?

MK: Again, I think that’s an individual thing. When I retired, I spent about a year where I did not work. I didn’t go to school. I didn’t participate in veterans activities. I might be on the sideline of a parade, or something like that, but I didn’t actively participate. I needed to take a break, and I also chose to move to Berkshire County because there’s not a military installation close by. After two decades of being in the military… I knew that I needed to back away. I needed to disconnect for a while and redefine myself.

I’ve always said there were two types of people in the Army. There are those that the Army is who they are, and those that the Army is what they do. I did my best to maintain that the Army is what I did and not who I am because I didn’t want to lose my identity. I think, again, it depends on the individual. Being a veteran will always be a part of who I am, one of the labels I carry.  So yes, I’m a veteran. I’m a VFW commander. I’m a national veteran service officer. These things are veteran-centric. I’m also a father, a motorcycle rider, I’m an artist and a lot of different things. So it just kind of depends on who I’m talking to and or who I’m interacting with and the nature of our conversation.

JK: People don’t necessarily know that you’re a veteran and in everyday life. Some people can wear a hat or something that says you’re a veteran, which I’m proud to do. I have a high degree of pride in being a veteran but on the other hand, it’s not what makes me. I’m an American and I love America and I love the flag and all the things that people sometimes disagree with.

I think it’s important that we build into the youth a better understanding, to educate them about what America is. What is a veteran? What has a veteran done? How is that any different as a human being, as a citizen of this country? Everyone needs to do what veterans do, and that is to help [Americans]. Maybe we’re not all helping them by going to war, but we need to help them from being homeless. Help do things to help the folks that live around us. And that’s very important.

INTS: You both talked about being in the military but not letting the military be you. We might be guilty of thinking that those who join the military do it because that’s who they want to be.

MK: Like with most labels there’s often a stereotype. Some are positive and some are negative. When I started dating my wife at the tail end of my career, one of her friends found out she was dating an army guy and said, “He’s going to go crazy. He has PTSD.” Then we met each other. We had conversations, and you know, she might as well be my sister now. She had a preconceived notion, maybe from her social media or other media bias.

There are also positive stereotypes. People in the military are disciplined. It’s not always the case, but it is a positive stereotype. They know how to work as a member of a team. They know how to accomplish goals. We know how to look out for each other, and trust is definitely a piece of that. So I think that that’s one of the challenges and I think what it really comes down to is… we’re veterans of the military or war or whatever it is…but at the end of the day we’re human beings. We all have to get beyond the stereotypes. We’ve got to get to know each other as human beings and as people more so than the labels that we carry.

INTS: About that discipline, how do you carry that into your new life, your life outside of the service?

MK: I’m still learning to say no, because it was always a can-do attitude. I don’t want to hear no, I want to get to yes. So, if there’s an obstacle, how do we overcome the obstacle to get to yes? Unfortunately, that can be taken advantage of. I’m all about helping veterans as long as they allow me to help them. As long as they’re willing to do their part of it too. They can’t throw it all on my plate. That’s just not the way to work. “I’m here to help you. I’m not here to do it for you.”

JK: There is an interesting book that I read that was written by Admiral (William H.) McRaven and it’s called “Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life…And Maybe The World.” In the service, you’re told what to do and you have to accomplish the tasks that you are assigned. In normal life, in everyday life, you need to accomplish things and have a way to go about it. His book starts with make your own bed. That’s the first thing you should do in the morning because you’ve accomplished something. Then, you can move on to doing other things. And so that’s no different than in the military except the military lays down what you need to do. For yourself, you have to figure it out.

INTS: We debated asking this and I’m still not sure we should. Most civilians who’ve never been in the military get our ideas about what the military is like from movies. Is there one that depicts it accurately, and I don’t really mean war scenes. Just military life. So “Stripes” with Bill Murray, that what it’s like?

MK: Absolutely not! It’d be great if it was…You can look at a lot of different movies and you can see bits and pieces of it that are fairly accurate. That can be a challenge for a lot of veterans because they watch movies and they start picking out the deficiencies, the things that they got wrong. One movie that got a lot of rave reviews was American Sniper, about Chris Kyle. There were some pretty accurate depictions of combat situations in Iraq there; but then I take a step back from it and I look at the movie. It looks like Chris Kyle in the movie was the superhero that came in and taught the infantryman how to do their job. The way it was portrayed is that it was all him. They would have lost this fight if it wasn’t for him, and that’s that’s not necessarily the case. Now I was never in Special Operations and definitely not a Navy SEAL. So I can’t speak intimately about what they’re capable of and what they’ve done; but I can say, from small-unit tactics and small-unit operations in Iraq, the depiction of how they moved and how they interact and so forth was fairly accurate.

JK: I was in the military during the Vietnam era, and I had developed an opinion about what the Vietnam War was about. Over the years I was a supporter of what that war was about until I saw the [PBS] documentary by Ken Burns. It educated me about Vietnam and how that all came to be. I actually changed my opinion and I believe now we should not have been there. It was not for us to do.

I look at YouTube occasionally because a lot of the soldiers that were World War II vets who are now passing on are interviewed and talk about what happened. So I don’t look at the movies … You really need real life to understand what happened. People that were there doing what they did need to explain that. You can take what you want from that.

INTS: One thing we found interesting in our conversations leading up to the program was was the importance of talking about your service. Mike mentioned that when he meets people he wishes that more people would just ask him about his service, about his experiences.

MK: That is base, that’s an opportunity to get beyond assumptions and stereotypes. Ask me the question because everybody’s going to have a preconceived notion of what it means to be a veteran.

INTS: Isn’t it true that some veterans may have experiences they don’t want to talk about? Maybe this plays into why people might not probe a veteran as much. Because it could be sensitive. And to go back to the topic of of mass media, it’s often portrayed as a sensitive topic for soldiers.

MK: Again, that depends on the individual. Most of us are capable of answering simple questions that are not super probing… “Oh you served? What branch did you serve? In the Army? My grandfather served in the Army…” It doesn’t have to be, “Did you go to war? Did you kill somebody?” or anything like that.

INTS: Veterans Day is coming up. How do we do in civilian society as far as acknowledging and thanking veterans?

JK: There’s Memorial Day, too. That’s an important day for us. For Americans, it’s an important day. In some cases there are parades that take place. On Veterans Day, I enjoy going to [Muddy Brook Elementary] school here because the children make us breakfast and also they sing and give us notes individually. So, that is very nice; it’s a celebration of life. And then we go to the cemeteries and that’s a celebration of sacrifice, and we do that on both days. Monday we will do that. And so from time to time there are opportunities to reflect on what happened and those people that made it happen.

INTS: We want to open it up for you — if there’s something that you’d like to to say to our audience — to give you an opportunity to say something, whether it’s about the services that you offer or events that are coming up, anything like that.

MK: I appreciate the opportunity to be on the show today and talk about my experiences. Even though we all have different opinions, I think all our opinions are important. You highlight that veterans are human beings above anything else. If you are a veteran and you’re struggling, even if you’re not a veteran and you’re struggling, don’t be afraid to reach out to somebody.  At the end of the day, we all need to help each other and that’s how we’re going to overcome obstacles and things in life that might be more challenging than we expected them to be.

JK: I would like to advertise something. We do a lot of work, the American Legion and the VFW, to help young people. We have a scholarship program. We have the Boys and Girls State program which is very educational for young people to attend. We have a Student Trooper program. We have a number of those things, which we pay for and for which we raise money.

There is a turkey shoot coming up, which we are sponsoring on December 1st. It’s going to be at Great Barrington Fish and Game on Long Pond Road. Part of the proceeds of that will be to provide the prizes for those who win…I never win… but most of the money pays for our programs.

INTS: To be clear, you don’t shoot turkeys, you shoot at a target and win a turkey.

JK: We appreciate anyone that’s interested in doing that and supporting our programs. That’s one of the events that is sponsored by the American Legion in Housatonic and the VFW in Housatonic. Mike’s a member of both the Legion and the VFW in Lenox, so you don’t have to be from Great Barrington. You can come to our event and don’t even have to bring a shotgun. You can borrow one.

INTS: Thank you both for taking the time to talk with us and for sharing your experiences and thoughts. We said it goes without saying, but we’ll say it anyway: Thank you for your service.

We encourage you to click here to listen to the WSBS podcast of It’s Not That Simple for more details than we are able to cover in print.

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