Barack Obama is not the first black man for whom I've voted for President of the United States. In 1968, I voted for someone who was running against Republican Richard Nixon and Democrat Hubert Humphrey. His name was Eldridge Cleaver, the Peace and Freedom Party candidate. It was during the Vietnam War and I felt compelled to cast a protest vote.
I also protested the war by working for Medical Aid for Indochina. We helped rebuild a wing of the Bach Mai Hospital in Hanoi, bombed by Nixon and Kissinger in Christmas of 1972. I even met with a pregnant Jane Fonda while she was still married to Tom Hayden, one of the Chicago Seven. I was never disrespectful to soldiers returning from Vietnam. But I never went out of my way to thank them or show them any courtesy for their service. I was young and insensitive.
Even though my radical liberalism has softened over the years, I've never come close to voting Republican. So I was rather stunned when my then 17-year-old son suddenly announced that he wanted to join the Marines. In his somewhat hard-scrabble high school in Cambridge, MA (whose alumni include Patrick Ewing, Ben Affleck, and Matt Damon), my son was an anomaly. He was the only student who stood and pledged allegiance to the flag at the start of every school day. He didn't care what his peers thought and yet he somehow managed to remain extremely well liked. And he wasn't happy about the book I wrote about Jack Abramoff, rushed into print weeks before last year's presidential election, because I was critical of Sen. John McCain, a war hero.
Years earlier, in July 2001, I took my then nine-year-old son to the observation deck atop one of the World Trade Center towers. For some reason he took a liking to those twin buildings and even carried a couple of photographs of them in his wallet. Less than three months later, we drove back to New York City on the Saturday after the terrorist attacks, so we could witness history. No cars were permitted south of Houston Street. We walked for many blocks until we came to within a hundred feet of where the remains of the Twin Towers were still smoldering and a large shard of the façade, tilting precariously, was still standing.
Years later, my son told me that on that trip he decided to join the Marines so he could "kill terrorists."
Last February, he graduated from high school a semester early, and two weeks before his 18th birthday, he flew off to Parris Island in South Carolina, the Marine Corps' East Coast training center. Somehow, he survived the grueling 13-week dehumanization ordeal called boot camp.
In early May, I attended his graduation and was surprised at how much I was moved by the talented Marine Corps Marching Band, which played several well-known martial songs. I found myself impressed by all the militaristic pomp and circumstance. I was moved by seeing my son marching and shouting robotically as a member of the U. S. Armed Forces.
Up to this point I had been utterly oblivious to -- and somewhat disdainful of -- all matters related to the military. I was a veteran of the Vietnam War protest era and immersed in the parochial world of liberal Cambridge, Massachusetts.
At the end of my son's 10-day home leave after boot-camp graduation, I drove him back to Logan Airport. He was in uniform. He was flying down to Camp Geiger in North Carolina for Marine Combat Training, which includes the art of throwing grenades and firing 50-caliber machine guns. After handing off his four heavy bags to the curbside skycap, I slipped my son $10 and told him to tip the man. The skycap -- a black man, much of whose income comes from gratuities -- declined to accept it.
The skycap isn't the only one. The airlines do not charge any member of the armed forces for checked baggage. Many stores give active members of the military steep discounts on merchandise. Whenever the police stop my son for some minor driving infraction, they invariably give him a warning. As I said, I'd been utterly oblivious of this culture.
Several weeks later, I even went down to Camp Geiger for his graduation. After the ceremony, he introduced me to his bunkmate, a fine-looking 21-year-old man from Portland, Maine.
Recently, my son received his first assignment and to my great relief will not be deployed ... at least for the next two years. He is stationed in Washington D.C. In August, I visited him there at the Marine Barracks parade grounds to watch the Silent Drill Platoon. (Twenty-four Marines silently and precisely spin their rifles in synchronized high speed. The team's exhibition appears in the opening scene of the movie, A Few Good Men, and was featured in a Marine recruitment TV ad campaign last year.)
The parade ground was awash with handsome, fit, and extremely polite young men and women in their Marine dress blues. Displayed on their chests were gold medals, representing their career accomplishments, including deployment in Iraq and/or Afghanistan. I was somewhat taken aback that so many of them had been deployed three, four, even five times. I couldn't help but peer into their eyes and see my son's. I couldn't help but wonder what their parents had endured during those deployments.
I'm opposed to the war in Iraq. As despicable as Saddam Hussein was, he had nothing to do with the 9/11 terrorist attacks. And I'm ambivalent about the war in Afghanistan. As despicable as the Taliban is, we would have never invaded Afghanistan were it not for their harboring Osama bin Laden.
About two weeks ago, my son learned that his bunkmate at Camp Geiger was killed in action in Afghanistan. (The decision by the Associated Press to release a photo of this young Marine as he lay dying -- against the wishes of his parents -- sparked considerable controversy.) My son told me -- and I knew this was coming -- that because of his bunkmate's death, he now feels even more compelled to raise his hand and volunteer for deployment.
If I could turn back the clock, there is something I would do differently. No, I wouldn't go back and cancel that trip to NYC four days after the 9/11 attacks. I would go back to the late 60s and early 70s, and I would welcome home those returning soldiers from Vietnam with the respect and courtesy they deserved. I may not have agreed with the war in which they were fighting, but I certainly would have let them know how much I appreciated their devotion, service, and bravery.
I am sorry I lacked the good sense of that Logan Airport skycap.
Gary S. Chafetz is the author of The Perfect Villain: John McCain and the Demonization of Lobbyist Jack Abramoff.