There was no happier man than the one who walked out of Fort Lee on Sept. 1, 1970, honorable discharge in hand. In truth, my three-year army tour had been pretty undemanding, spent mostly at NATO’s military headquarters trying to catch spies. And we almost caught one, in a top-secret operation reminiscent of the Keystone Kops, that featured my friend Red (6 feet 5 inches and 240 pounds, including the shrapnel he had acquired in Korea) and me posing as Belgian road workers – although Red spoke not a word of French and we arrived at “the job” in a black Peugeot with a radio antenna on its roof. In the midst of our stakeout, the German suspect was transferred home to avoid an international incident, and we went back to our desk jobs. The army didn’t like me much more than I liked the army, preferring a more gung-ho specimen. Yet stories like mine, I believe, help make the case for universal service – not military service, solely, but a country in which everybody contributes a couple of years to the greater community. Career officers, here as elsewhere, can lose sight of the military’s role in a republic, and millions of inept civilians remind them not to take themselves too seriously. Thrown together from all over, those recruits also help democratize an increasingly divided country.
And don’t underestimate their valor. Most of those who hit the Normandy beaches 70 years ago today were not career soldiers, and far too many of them never came home.