Vaughn C. Hardacker here: I’m writing this on September 12, 2021, and here in the north country, we are starting to see some of the trees donning their autumnal finery. Autumn (Fall if you prefer) has always been my favorite season. I believe it’s because when the trees approach their peak color, and the sky is a stunning blue and cloudless, the entire landscape seems to be at its brightest. It’s always surprised me how such a bright and beautiful season is, in reality, the precursor to the cold, dark, dreary winter. I’ve always thought that fall is Mother Nature’s last opportunity to dress up before her long winter nap.
It also makes me pause and review the summer past. The past year has been anything but boring up in The County. It started in its usual way. The sun sets around 3:00 pm, and it is full dark by 3:30. In my pre-retirement days, I drove to work in the dark, worked in a windowless office, and then drove home in the dark. It made me feel like a mushroom… kept in the dark and fed B. S.
Then in February, the nonprofit company that runs the Maine Veterans Homes announced its intention to close the homes in Caribou and Machias. The closure decision was made in October but kept secret until February. Why the delay of the announcement? I can only think of one reason, they were afraid that if they announced the pending closure (it was to happen in May), staff would immediately start searching for jobs elsewhere. In short, they were screwing their employees. This action lit a three-foot fire under the local veteran community. When Trot Jackson (Democrat from Allagash), President of the Maine State Senate, introduced legislation to stop the closures, county veterans (regardless of political affiliation) rallied around him and went to work. At the risk of sounding cynical, the Maine Veterans Homes should have known better than to attempt such a wrong move during an election year. To make this short, the legislation passed the Maine Legislation with 100% bipartisan support.
In June, I was asked if I would be willing to join a group of veterans for a whirlwind trip to
Washington, D.C. We left Caribou at six o’clock on Thursday morning, June 16, and drove all day and night, stopping only for gas and food. We arrived in Washington around 1:30 am on Friday the 17th. We checked into our hotel, slept for a few hours, and performed a wreath ceremony at The Tomb of The Unknown at Arlington Cemetery. The temperature that day hit 100 degrees Fahrenheit, but as we watched the honor marching in dark blue uniforms in the blistering heat, we knew that we had no business complaining. I had an epiphany of sorts. We may never again have an unknown… the military now routinely takes DNA from all of its members and stores it in a database.
It made me think of my first friend in Vietnam. Joe Zutterman, from Marysville, Kansas, took me under his wing when I arrived in-country on January 29, 1968. Joe had some trouble early in his Marine career and
had been demoted. He was due to return home on April 20, 1968. He was offered a promotion to Sergeant (E-5) if he would extend his tour for an additional six months. On April, the first day of his extension, the helicopter in which Joe was door gunner was blown up. When I visited the wall, Joe was listed as MIA (Assumed Dead) Body Not Recovered. I saw the wreckage; all the recovery crew found were bits and pieces. The crew and Joe Zutterman’s remains have never been recovered. With DNA technology, all that is required is a small piece of the body, and identity can be determined.
Now that I’m thinking of Joe and how his death made me realize that the movies have no idea what war is like. Wouldn’t it be great if, after a battle, the director could shout, “Cut…that’s a wrap…” and all the participants, dead and alive, got up and went home? I recently read somewhere that since the American Revolution, there have only been 23 years in which there has not been a war in which our armed forces were involved.
Maybe there no longer being an unknown soldier isn’t a bad thing after all. This winter, on those cold, dark nights, I’ll big this blog post up, think of Joe… and feel warm all over.