Veterans who can’t forget call to national service

Published 1:00 am Sunday, September 11, 2011

Warren Allen is polite and firm-jawed, straight backed.

The divorced father, age 30, answers questions with a practiced “Yes, sir,” or “No, sir.”

Despite his youth, he has an aura of experienced authority.

He speaks of his time in the Army with obvious pride.

He joined up in 2003, rooting out and lobbing artillery against insurgents.

The sergeant returned home after sustaining an injury.

He said his Humvee was hit by an improvised explosive device in an attack that killed some of his fellow soldiers – friends, colleagues.

Asked why he went over there, Allen didn’t hesitate.

“9/11,” he answered.

‘All of a sudden …’

On Sept. 11, 2001, Allen was on the job with his father’s construction business.

That morning, he was nailing up some crown molding on kitchen cabinetry he helped install at The Willows, a new gated community west of downtown Washington.

A painting crew was on hand.

“They had on the kind of older-style boom boxes with the television screen on it,” he said. “They were watching the morning show or something like that.”

A news anchor broke into the usual on-air chatter.

A plane had struck a tower at the World Trade Center.

“I thought, ‘It’s probably some pilot that didn’t know exactly what he was doing,’” Allen remarked. “I couldn’t see how anybody would crash into a building, though, accidentally.”

He tried to get back to work, but his mind kept returning to that little black-and-white TV screen and the horrors it was beginning to beam into the freshly painted townhouse.

“All of a sudden, the other building just exploded,” he said.

This was it. Another tower hit.

The real thing: terrorism on a grand scale.

“I just though to myself then, ‘This is the beginning of the end of the world,’” Allen said. “If anybody can somehow get a commercial airline, a jet, close enough, into something as significant as the World Trade Center buildings it was over.”

America would be a new place on 9/12.

“I just knew things were going to change,” Allen said. “I didn’t know how.”

‘Remember Pearl Harbor’

Bill Nelson is 86 years old.

His memory is impeccable as he describes his years in the World War II Navy.

“I couldn’t talk about it for a long, long time,” he said.

Now, Nelson can talk about it.

He goes to area schools and tells students what it was like to take part in five major invasions – to help liberate the Philippines from the imperial Japanese, to be present for the end game.

“We had two submarines to come up and surrender to us as we were going in,” he said. “We were there for the surrender signing.”

Of this he has proof in the form of documents, photographs, campaign medals, all of it meticulously organized in scrapbooks and a shadowbox.

Nelson served on the USS Lyman, a ship he helped commission.

He was a sonar striker, detecting the enemy at sea.

He’s clearly proud of the work he did on the Lyman, but he didn’t go to war voluntarily.

“A lot of people say they didn’t draft you out of high school. That’s not true,” he said. “I’ve been there. I had completed the 11th grade and been promoted to the 12th and I was supposed to have graduated in ’44, the class of ’44. Well, in ’44 I was in the South Pacific.”

Being a draftee didn’t change the importance of his mission, or his dedication to that mission.

“Everything was highly classified. When you pulled out of harbor you didn’t know where you were going until you got three miles out so you couldn’t tell nobody where you were going,” Nelson explained. “Now, if something happens they put it on TV a week in advance.”

Nelson watched the war up close from his position in a sonar hut on the Lyman’s flying bridge.

That stuff they talk about on the History Channel – he lived it.

He was in the Pacific when a deadly typhoon did to the Navy what he said the Japanese couldn’t do.

A wave nearly capsized the Lyman.

“We rolled 68 degrees. That’s beyond the point of return,” Nelson said. “You’re gone. We lost three ships that disappeared during that storm. Should’ve been four. But the Lord saw fit for a wave to knock us back up.”

Nelson was asked about the war of his youth, and the wars of post-9/11 America.

“Remember Pearl Harbor was the thing back then,” he said. “We now say remember 9/11.”

As Nelson sees it, the current uproar can be traced to when Jesus walked the Earth.

“When he was here on Earth they were fighting over there then amongst themselves … and they’re still fighting to this day,” he said. “We cannot stop them from fighting. To me it’s just a waste of life. We’re letting our boys go over there and you can only shoot at a certain time, you can’t do this, you can’t do that. Things are different today than they were back in World War II, and I know it. But with the modern technology and everything they have today it should have been over with a long, long time ago. There’s no excuse. And this war is what really put the United States in debt.”

‘You need to win the thing’

Wayne Melton spent 20 years in the military.

“I think probably like most guys who were in combat, if they survived it, that’s probably the highlight of their career,” he said.

The Vietnam-era vet served with the 5th Special Forces Group.

“We ran clandestine operations into Cambodia, Laos and North Vietnam,” he said, adding the job involved trying to capture prisoners and interdict routes of communication.

He volunteered for this.

He was wounded a couple of times, earning the Purple Heart, a bronze star for valor and more.

He’s seen war.

But 9/11 was jarring for him, too.

“I think that I was probably like most Americans,” he said. “It was almost surreal. When you saw it on television it was just hard to comprehend that something like that was happening in our country or that we allowed it to happen.”

He didn’t talk strategy, but philosophy’s another matter.

“If you’re going to have a war you need to win the thing,” Melton said. “Coming in second place in a war isn’t like coming in second in a track meet.”

In a fight with murderous terrorists, it’s do or die.

“We’re going to have to stop them,” Melton said. “It’s not like in World War II where you could just try to completely subdue the government that was sponsoring the Nazis or the Japanese.”

This is war at home and abroad.

“That’s basically what these people are waging against us is guerrilla warfare,” he said. “They don’t have to invade us with armies.”

If the U.S. is going to beat the terrorists, it can’t go too far in curtailing its freedoms, he suggested.

“They’ve made a lot of accomplishments as far as disrupting our way of life,” Melton said. “They’ve stolen that from us.”

Asked what young people could do to help, Melton’s first advice was to get an education, learn a skill, “something that offers them a future.”

Above all, they and everyone else should set aside some time today to reflect on 9/11.

“This is a day of remembrance. It’s not going to change anything probably. But at least take five minutes and think about it,” he said.

Back home

Allen is home now.

He’s working at Beaufort County’s veterans services office and going to college on the GI bill.

He came away from the wars with some tough memories, indelible impressions of everything from the fractured Iraqi desert during a hailstorm to the faces of starving children begging for chewing gum.

“The rich are super-rich and the poor are beyond anything that I’ve ever seen before,” he said. “I felt bad actually having to fight against them, but there was no real advancement that I could see.”

The starving children would throw rocks if soldiers didn’t give them food, airing a frustration Allen understood.

“At the same time, who doesn’t want to get back at them? It’s a tough, gray, blurry area to work in,” he said.

At first, Allen thought the Iraq war was about oil.

Then he heard it was about terrorism and nation building.

“Then it turned into we’re establishing democracy for them,” he said. “We’re going to make them a free country.”

He thinks politicians used terror-driven propaganda “to put us in places that we really don’t belong as a military force.”

Despite the ambiguities of war motives, Allen had nothing but the highest praise for the American men and women doing their duty around the world.

For him, knowledge of that duty started with the unfortunate inspiration of 9/11, a day he still can’t forget.

“We’ve got a lot of good guys out there putting life and limb on the line to make sure that nobody forgets it,” he said.