I am finding myself in a more and more exclusive segment of the U.S. population: combat veterans. And I don’t really deserve to belong to that valiant group. While I was in combat on the battlefield repeatedly during my career as a signals intelligence operant, a combat veteran is defined as one who fired upon an enemy and was fired upon by that same enemy. My job was to tell friendly forces what the enemy was up to. I was a civilian but under cover as military, dressed in the battle fatigues of the unit I was supporting. I was armed, usually with a .38 revolver, but I never once fired a shot during combat. I honestly didn’t have time for that. I was too busy collecting information on the enemy and passing it to our troops.
But there is no question that I was fired upon. Bullet holes in my fatigues testified to that. The miracle is that I was never hit. So I consider myself an exception to the rule about firing on the enemy and declare myself a combat veteran.
Meanwhile, I am a veteran in the normal sense of the word. I did three years of service in the army but never saw combat. It was only after I completed my enlistment that I ventured onto the battlefield as a civilian under cover as military.
Because I lived as an enlisted man with the units I was supporting—sleeping on the ground beside the men I was there to help, eating C-rations with them sitting on the ground, and going into combat with them—I allow myself to claim the title of combat veteran.
I’ve researched how many combat veterans are living today in the U.S. I found no exact figures. The best guess offered by researchers is that 10 percent of all active-duty soldiers see combat. I believe that figure is far too high, but if I accept it, it means that there 1.74 million combat veterans living in the U.S. in 2020. Half of them are 65 or older, and the vast majority served during the Vietnam War. Veterans of all stripes comprise approximately 6.9% of the nation’s adult population according to the Census Bureau. Consequently, the surviving number of combat veterans is less than one percent of the population.
So I am a member of a very select group. I am both humbled and proud to be counted among the men I most admire.