by Rebecca M. Alvin
Veterans Day is celebrated annually on November 11th at 11 a.m. Originally, the day was meant to honor those who died in World War I, and was scheduled to commemorate the end of the conflict between the U.S. and Germany, which happened at that specific date and time in 1918. But in the United States, that original holiday, Armistice Day, was expanded after the Korean War to include all those who have served in any branch of our military service, regardless of when or under what kinds of conditions, acknowledging their service and their willingness to defend the country, should the occasion arise. After all, not everyone is willing to do that, and so it is worth honoring those who put themselves on the line, even if during our rare times of peace.
“I don’t think of myself as a veteran because I wasn’t in any action,” says local musician and advertising rep. at Provincetown Magazine Peter Donnelly. “But you’re part of readiness, you know. That’s what you are if you’re in during peacetime. [Something] can happen at any moment.”
Donnelly served in the Navy from 1982 to 1986, stationed in Sardinia, close to Libya, where in 1986 then President Ronald Reagan authorized military airstrikes in retaliation for Libyan bombings in various European cities targeting American military personnel. Donnelly says security was heightened and as he worked as a diver checking submarines, there was a sense that something could really happen in relation to that conflict.
Veterans are people who went into military service knowing that at any point they could be called into combat. At certain times and in certain branches the odds of being deployed may be higher or lower, but the willingness to put one’s life on the line is part of every veteran’s service, and it is that willingness that is honored on Veterans Day.
Like Donnelly, Kathy Phipps was also in the Navy in the early ‘80s. “Even though it was only five years in my life. It was life-changing. I couldn’t imagine my life if I didn’t,” she says, but also admits she went into the Navy as a young woman without giving it much deep consideration. “I got accepted to college and I was going to go and I kind of chickened out. And then my best friend from high school said that her boyfriend joined the Navy and she was going to join too, and would I join with her? And I was like, ‘Sure.’ That’s how that happened,” she recalls with a laugh.
Phipps started out working as a diesel mechanic on the kinds of ships she was allowed to be on (women then were not allowed to work on certain ships) but then switched to working in kitchens. Today she works at Far Land here in town. Both Donnelly and Phipps ended as E-5 second-class petty officers in the Navy (Donnelly was also a first-class diver.) and they recall their military service as a positive experience that allowed them to learn and achieve things they’d never have been able to do in civilian life, and both left the Navy after one tour of duty, when they felt it was time to move on.
For Donnelly, however, being a gay man in the military in the times before the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy was in effect, made it difficult to stay in the Navy. “My time was up. I did four years. It was limiting and it wasn’t something I ever planned on staying in. I wanted to be a diver and get out of town… It was time to grow up. And being gay, I felt closed in,” he says. “In those years it was still before ‘Don’t Ask Don’t, Don’t Tell’; it was ‘Hide.’”
Provincetown Harbormaster Don German is also a veteran. A career military man, his experiences have been more varied, beginning with his service in the National Guard in 1966 as helicopter crew chief for six years during the Vietnam War, but was not deployed. He left the service thinking he would not return, but wanted to work on a ship and that led him to join the Army, where he stayed, retiring as a Maritime Training and Standards Officer, rank Chief Warrant Officer Five, in 2008. He was deployed in 2006, but downplays it saying by then he was just going to Kuwait for several weeks at a time as part of the Army’s marine qualifications board “to deal with accidents or any other incident that happened in the theater.”
While some may feel conflicted about celebrating war and conflict, it’s important to separate the geopolitics from the human beings. Memorial Day has already become more a marker of the beginning of the summer season than a day to honor those who gave their lives in military service. But thanking living veterans for their service on Veterans Day is the least those of us who have never served can do. And while there are many ways to serve one’s country or one’s community, military service should never be trivialized or ignored, even when a veteran did not see combat or serve during a time of war.
Phipps, Donnelly, and German all recall their return to civilian life as a bit of an adjustment, but for German, after his service during Vietnam, it was particularly difficult, and he says they couldn’t wear a uniform in public for a long time after in the U.S. “because we were baby killers and that kind of stuff,” he says. “I remember when we could wear uniforms again in public. And the very first time, I was actually at a gas station getting gasoline, and a gentleman started walking up. And I thought, ‘uh-oh.’ I could see he was walking up to me. He put his hand out and he said ‘I want to thank you for your service.’ That was probably the most meaningful thank you I ever got. Because it was the first time we were able to wear a uniform in public again. And so that meant a lot. And does it mean something when somebody says it today? It does. I feel good about it. And I just say, ‘Thank you; it was honored to be able to serve.’”
Veterans Day will be observed by Provincetown on Saturday, November 11 at 11 a.m. at The Doughboy memorial outside of Town Hall, 260 Commercial St. In addition, there is a ceremony specifically in honor of seafaring members of the service at the end of MacMillan Pier at 10 a.m., in which a wreath is tossed into the sea. After the events, there is a public reception at the Knights of Columbus.