On a raw and misty day in Roanoke I was headed back to the car with a bag of hardware when a shiny red SUV rolled up beside me and a loud voice blared, "I always heard that stood for 'Ain't Ready for the Marines Yet."
I turned, puzzled, and saw a fellow about my age behind the wheel, grinning and pointing to my ball cap. I had forgotten I had an old cap with ARMY emblazoned on the front. It's a cap I wear from time to time to remind me about my days in the Army in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and to reflect on how lucky we are in an uncertain world to have folks willing to put on the uniform and go where they're sent and do what they're trained to do.
The other fellow was smiling and I thought he was having too good a time at my expense, so I asked, "When were you in the Marines?" He replied, "I wasn't. I was in the hospital with bleeding ulcers about the time they had the draft lottery, and my number was never called."
We chatted for a while about the military and friends we had known who went in, most of whom came back, and a few who never got back home. I told him I recalled reading somewhere that in the Vietnam era, most of those in the American military services didn't go off to war, but served stateside like me, or in other relatively peaceful billets around the world. Now in the post-draft volunteer Army, so many soldiers go off to fight on multiple tours of duty. My niece's husband has been deployed five or six times, I think -- a huge difference in the way things used to be.
My new acquaintance was staring off into the distance by then, thinking, I suppose, about the changes he'd seen, the opportunities he had, the roads taken and not taken, and he was quiet for a few moments. Then he looked at me and said, "I wish I'd gone in. I was always sorry I didn't." We shook hands, and he rolled away into the mist.