Real combat vets don't brag about war

November 11, 1999

My father only told me one real story about World War II, even though the war took up more than four years of his young life. Painfully thin and nearsighted as could be, he was accepted into the Seabees, a construction outfit stationed on Guam, in the South Pacific.

Early in the conflict, young sentries were posted and instructed to watch the dark jungle that surrounded them for any movement. But the jungle is not like a forest in the dead of winter; it's anything but quiet.

Before too long, a nervous young sentry mistook the rustle of a bird's wings or the scuttling of a lizard across the jungle floor for the tromp of an enemy's boot. He pointed in the direction of the sound and began firing.

Across the island, other sentries heard the shots and began to believe that they were being attacked. Round after round was fired into the darkness until finally an old sergeant shouted "Cease fire!" There had been no attack, and 40 years later, the jumpy nerves of those young men, like he'd once been, still brought a smile to my dad's face.


Other than one other anecdote about being given a dry shirt by a native family during a torrential rainstorm, my father said nothing about the war, although years later he was pleased when he was belatedly sent three medals, which he kept in the cigar box full of valuable trinkets he'd pull out occasionally for our inspection.

This has been my experience when writing about people who've really been in combat situations; by and large, they are humble about their experiences, realizing that it was not some James Bond-type derring-do that got them home, but more often the ultimate sacrifice made by someone else, often a buddy in their outfit.

Not long ago, I spent the morning at Hagerstown's Alternative School, talking to a Vietnam veteran to show a group of students something about interviewing skills.

It reinforced something that I've told every young reporter I ever worked with as an editor. And that is this: Government officials have to explain how they spend their time and the public's money, but for just about everybody else, their agreement to share their experiences is a gift to be handled with care.

More than 20 years later, this vet was mighty uncomfortable recalling those times. But because he cared about his students and what they might learn about what each of us owes the nation - and to those who sacrificed to deliver the good life to us - he endured my questions. He showed me (and I hope the students as well) that heroism is not confined to the battlefield.

We're about a week overdue on my latest letter-writing contest, which asked people to detail what they wanted in the newspaper of the future. I'm not sure you really got into the anything-goes spirit that I asked for, because instead of all of the cyber-fantasies I imaged, I got only two replies, one from Edward L. James of Hancock:

"Whether paper or on-line, my ideal newspaper of the future is one that will promote no agenda beyond a search for truth and facts and have a commitment to reporting those to its readers without bias.

"It will take no sides on issues, endorse no candidates in political contests - only strive to represent all sides fairly so we can filter information ourselves. Because objectivity is impossible and bias is subtle, it will do its utmost to balance every aspect of its operation with people of different/opposing ideologies (e.g. liberal/conservative).

"It will remember that its primary purpose is reliable news, not entertainment."

"Pulitzer would be proud."

The other came from Douglas Scott Arey, an inmate at the Maryland Correctional Institution. Instead of using the page opposite the editorial page for various syndicated columnists, he would:

"...Leap-frog (The Baltimore) Sun op-ed pages by doing that which the Sun doesn't. Try printing more of the many quality over-the-transom essays local readers submit. They are relevant, timely and free, and they are what your other readers are looking for."

Is that what readers want? Two letters doesn't convince me that's correct, so I'm extending the deadline another week. Dazzle me with your vision of the future, or one of these two will get the $20. Send to: Newspaper of the Future, c/o Editorial Page, The Herald-Mail, P.O. Box 439, Hagerstown, Md., 21741.

Bob Maginnis is editor of The Herald-Mail's Opinion page.
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