It’s a Navy town. When kids at church contemplate enlisting into the dirtside branch, their parents occasionally ask my input. In describing the components of the Army, I usually describe the National Guard as being more like a family. Whereas Big Army might rotate you somewhere new every 3-4 years, you could easily work with the same people in the same Guard unit for a decade or more. Holding a less common MOS, I could have easily retired from the Guard with 20 years without ever leaving my platoon–the only one in the state in which I am fully duty MOS qualified. You get to really know and work with people over the years, sometimes deploy with them, and have very tight bonds that can last.
The punchline is that like a family, the Guard also has those batshit crazy people that you can’t really do anything about and you pretty much just have to wait for them to die off.
But sooner or later, everybody goes, not just the crazy ones.
I got a chat message at work this week. “Do you know about Cory?”
I know only one Cory. He was a crusty but kind senior NCO when I joined the company, sharp-witted and funny, but willing to listen. He had advice. He had knowledge. Most of all, he had perspective. He was our last Vietnam veteran. He’d served in the final days of that conflict as a transportation Captain, resigned his commission in the early 80s, and then enlisted as an E4 in intelligence years later, working his way up to E7. He’d lived through the good, the bad, and the ugly. He was living history, wearing our uniform and speaking our language, but also just a great guy who would figure out ways to bend the rules to take care of Joe, because that was more important than all of the other Army garbage. I don’t know anyone who didn’t love him.
He tried to volunteer to mobilize again when a group of us were called in 2009, feeling that OEF would be an excellent capstone to a career begun in Vietnam, but he would have turned 62 in theater; his request for a waiver was declined. He was compelled by his age to retire in 2010, though we managed to get him to visit for a few holiday parties and whatnot, most recently in December 2013 to (finally) receive his retirement awards, which had sat lost in a desk for three years.
A few weeks ago, he was planning to vacation in the Bahamas with his wife; he would have left yesterday. Now he is in a hospital. A week ago, they said he had six months; as of yesterday, the verdict was two weeks at the outside.
Hospital people understand well enough. “Are you family?” Other than being male bipeds, the three of us who stopped by yesterday afternoon had no particular physical similarity.
Doc–he who once led my team in Afghanistan (he was Smallville then) but now leads the company as acting First Sergeant–did not miss a beat: “We are Army family.” Oh. Right this way, gentlemen.
Doc has been on leave all week, and spent a good bit of time there, so he could fill us in. Cory has moments of lucidity, but mostly just pain. He can’t eat, see very well, or track on time or dates much. Sometimes he knows what’s going on and understands his situation; others, he asks questions about the Bahamas trip and whether they are packed yet. At one point, he realized he was in a different room from earlier; we told him he’d been kicked out because he’d been fresh with the nurses. He smiled and sort of shrugged. It was plausible.
While we stood by and chatted–and laughed, because every gathering of soldiers no matter how grim has humor–he came in and out of consciousness. At one point he was pretty lucid for a few minutes. Doc told him who was present, and he gripped my arm with surprising strength, seeming genuinely happy to see me, the least of those who had come.
Later, he heard Jim’s voice and asked in an incredulous voice, “How many people are in here, anyway?” We were up to five at the time; we told him we’d decided to have a staff meeting.
The NCO who first told me had been there earlier in the week. Several former commanders had been there, coworkers, former battalion staff officers, a duty roster of other comrades. A few minutes or a few hours, we kept him company so his family could take a break. Some (like me) had moved to other units within the state, and some had retired, but everybody comes when called because that’s what we do.
And regardless of what the Army puts on your orders–and except for the way Cory will soon go–you don’t leave Bravo Company unless you choose to.
Addendum: (31 May) I received word that Cory passed this morning. Visiting on Friday was awfully hard, but I’m sincerely glad I got even a few short hours with him; I wish it had been more. If that opportunity ever appears in your life, do not let it pass by.