Every year when Memorial Day rolls around, I always wind up at some point thinking about the Memorial Days I spent from about 1967-1971 at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery. During those years — as a Cub Scout, Webelo, and Boy Scout — I would plant flags for hours on what seemed like never ending rows of the graves of veterans. Aside from the sheer number of dead (we were told over 120,000 graves at the time) what impressed me most and stayed with me was that the cemetery had graves for all American wars, including graves for veterans from the Revolutionary War. It had tens of thousands from the Civil War, including Confederate and Union dead — whites, African Americans, and unknowns. What was spookiest though, was that soldiers from the current war of the day, the Vietnam War, were also being buried at the cemetery.
As a kid, I always imagined that I would serve in the U.S. Army, like my Dad and all the generations of my ancestors had from World War I onwards. I was, like my friends, captivated by war documentaries and the old war movies. I enjoyed reading about battles and military history — at one point, about the only thing I enjoyed reading. With my friends I started to follow conflicts around the world and the development of new weapons and weapon systems. I even got into a trip to Fort Leonard Wood with my Boy Scout troop (96), despite the fact that my 14-year old political views were decidedly anti-war (and I wished I had been older in the 1960s so I could have protested). Our visit was memorialized in the May 26, 1974 Sunday Magazine, of the long defunct St. Louis Globe-Democrat. Not one to be shy, I wound up in almost every shot that appeared in the story, including the classic attempt at the obstacle course in loafers.
From about the time I turned 10 or 11, the idea that I would be in the military became less certain. Like most aspiring teen-agers, I became rebellious (perhaps a bit earlier than most). Part of that included the development of outspoken opposition to the continued involvement of the U.S. in Vietnam. Counter-culture and anti-establishment took hold and held attraction through out my teens. So did cars, girls, etc. In the end, I had little interest in academics in high school or immediately thereafter, so I became a fire fighter during 1979-1980. When I finally decided that fire fighting was not going to be a life long career for me (another story), military service again felt right as a way to contribute. I sought out and was nominated to attend West Point by Tom Eagleton and the Air Force Academy by Dick Gephardt. Sadly, neither nomination was successful, I think primarily because I had cared so little about high school grades and almost all of mine were mediocre at best.
Not to be dissuaded, I signed up for R.O.T.C. (Reserve Officers’ Training Corps) at University with a view to being commissioned as a second lieutenant at the end of my studies. I was a diligent cadet and performed so well at Advanced Camp at Fort Riley Kansas, that I was ordered to accompany a Military Police unit of the Illinois National Guard to Camp McCoy, Wisconsin for additional training as a Platoon Leader. Our exercise included providing security for the movement of nuclear weapons, which in July 1983 was still a time of the Cold War.
In terms of receiving a commission as a officer in the U.S. Army, fate, again, was against me. It turned out that I completed University in three years and was thus academically unaligned with the four year R.O.T.C. program. I received my B.S. degree in May 1983, but still had another year of R.O.T.C. to complete. This proved impossible because, despite starting law school in August 1983 at St. Louis University (SLU), there was no R.O.T.C. program at SLU. I offered to cross-enroll at Washington University in St. Louis to complete my R.O.T.C. in their program, but the Army, for reasons never given, declined. Instead, I received an “Honorable Discharge” from the United States Army in September 1983.
Even though I was never to really serve in the Regular U.S. Army or the U.S. Army Reserves, I still remember, with thanks, those who did (and who do) every May. I also like to revisit the 1884 address by Oliver Wendell Holmes, a Union veteran of the Civil War, about why people still keep up Memorial Day.