What I learned at the war

Posted: May 30, 2003 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- I've got the best job in broadcasting. My "day job" is to host "War Stories" for Fox News Channel. My "additional duty" is to cover young Americans in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. In short, I get to hang around with heroes.

No sane person who has ever been to a war wants to go to another. I first saw the carnage of combat as a rifle platoon commander in Vietnam. And I've been an eyewitness to the bravery and horror of war in Lebanon, Central America, Iran, Afghanistan, Israel and now Iraq. There is nothing glorious about war. But thankfully, there are those in America still willing to fight when the cause is just. And when they do, their efforts deserve to be reported accurately. That's why I went to Iraq.

I went with the preconceived notion that I'd already seen the "best of the best" in uniform -- those with whom I had served in combat. I was wrong. Having lived with them for the entire war, it is clear: There have never been brighter, better trained, better equipped soldiers, sailors, airmen, guardsmen and Marines than those now serving. The credit goes to the NCOs and junior officers who held the military together during the budget cuts, social engineering, fruitless deployments and lack of training in the 1990s.

In the combat arms -- infantry, artillery, armor, airborne, Special Ops -- they are all male, since current law forbids putting women into these units. But that doesn't mean that young women who serve in combat support units, like Jessica Lynch, can't easily find themselves in harm's way. But your typical young American in the helicopter and infantry combat units that I covered look like this.

On average, he's 19.6 years old -- about six months older than his grandfather who served in World War II or Korea. He isn't old enough to buy a beer, and if he were home we would call him a "boy." But because he's at war, we call him a soldier or a Marine. He was a high school athlete who also worked part-time and, unlike many of his peers, he's never drawn an unemployment check and never wants to.

A few times a week, he writes to his sweetheart back home and hopes that when the mailbag arrives he'll get a letter from her -- and his mom -- though he'd never admit to the latter. If he gets a care package from home with disposable razors, shaving cream, toothpaste, beef jerky, toilet paper and baby wipes, he'll share them with his squad and be a hero for a day.

He has a short haircut and tight muscles, wears a 3 pound Kevlar helmet and an 18 pound flak jacket to work, and can march all day in 100-degree heat with a 50 pound pack on his back. He knows how to use every weapon in his unit and can fieldstrip and re-assemble his personal weapon in less than a minute -- in the dark. He's gone weeks without bathing but cleans his weapon before he sleeps.

His company "Gunny" or Sergeant First Class has been in combat before -- but this is the first time he and his lieutenant have been shot at. Under fire, he obeys orders instantly, but if asked will always have an opinion on how to do something better. Often, he'll be right.

He's been taught chemistry, physics and ballistics, and can navigate with a map and compass -- but prefers the GPS he bought at the Base Exchange. He's remarkably self-sufficient. He prepares his own meals, washes and mends his own clothes, digs his own foxhole and latrine, and keeps his feet dry and his canteens full.

The kid who wouldn't share a candy bar with his brother will now offer his last drop of water to a wounded comrade, give his only ration to a hungry child and split his ammo with a mate in a firefight. He's been trained to use his body as a weapon and his weapon like it was part of his body. And he can use either to save a life -- or take one.

He's already had more responsibility and seen more suffering and death than his civilian contemporaries will see in their lifetimes. The fellow who used to stay in the sack 'til noon now exists on three to four hours of sleep a day -- and when he comes home, he'll be on average 12 pounds lighter than when he left.

He's learned a whole new vernacular of military shorthand -- words like "CONUS," "H-hour," "Zulu time," "SNAFU" and "FUBAR." They mean nothing to civilians, and he doesn't care.

He knows grown men don't cry, but he has wept unashamed in public over a fallen friend because he knows heroes aren't defined just by the way they die -- but how they live.

He can now take profanity to the level of a new art form -- but carries a Bible in his rucksack and is unafraid to be seen reading from it. He's proud to be serving his country, reveres his commander in chief -- and knows that he is respected in return. While he is modest about his own courage and military prowess, he's absolutely certain that his is the toughest unit in the U.S. Armed Forces.

When he gets home, he won't talk much about the horror of war, but he will want more fresh milk, salads and homemade cookies than you ever thought possible.

This fall, when he goes to a ballgame, he'll resent those who fail to stand in silence when they play our national anthem. He's enough to drive the liberals nuts. And somewhere this year, we need to find another 180,000 just like him who will volunteer to serve.