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U.S. armed forces: A time to remember and marvel

Young men and women with little experience are brought together to accomplish great things.

I am writing this on Veterans Day, and this is a Veterans Day column. Though Nov. 11 has passed, I want to share the experience of this Navy veteran who served on a destroyer in the Tonkin Gulf during the Vietnam War.

For the six months that my ship supported Marines ashore as well as aircraft carriers in the gulf, I saw many glorious South Asian sunrises and endured many late-night rendezvous with oil tankers and supply ships.

My ship's role was not a particularly dangerous one most times, so much of what we did was simply "being there" and being active for what were typically 18- to 20-hour days.

Looking back I am struck by what we asked of mostly very young men (and it was all men back then). I was all of 24 and a venerable veteran, one of the three most senior officers on my destroyer.

The responsibility we had was staggering. I remember one dark and stormy night in particular when I was the officer of the deck, in charge of running the ship, as we maneuvered at high speed in formation with a very large aircraft carrier and several other destroyers.

Our captain had gone to bed. All ships were running "dark" with no lights showing. In such situations it was often difficult to figure out just what courses the other ships were on, particularly the aircraft carrier.

Carriers were run by naval aviators who often seemed to us destroyer men to be cavalier about such things as course and speed. Often they did what they needed to do to launch or recover aircraft and left it up to us lesser mortals to stay out of the way.

Trust me, when an aircraft carrier just 1,000 yards in front of you starts to turn, you really do want to know which way they are going so as not to get caught in front of them. Aircraft carriers are clumsy, big and menacing.

On this particular night the carrier's course reversals led to several anxious moments. Our ship plotted the carrier's turn, but it was impossible to see from our bridge just how the turn was progressing or how vulnerable we might be.

A few months earlier a ship on which a Naval Academy classmate served had barely survived a night scrape with a carrier, losing some superstructure but, luckily, no lives.

I said a few prayers that night, and all worked out well. We had a good crew and sufficient training by this time to handle most situations.

I still marvel at the way the Navy effectively brought together such a disparate group. I am quite sure it is still that way in the all-volunteer armed forces of today. Young men and women with diverse backgrounds and little experience soon find themselves called on to deal with challenges, often in remote and inhospitable places. They do it, mostly well and often with too little appreciation.

If you want to get a better sense of how the armed forces work today, I recommend Sebastian Unger's latest book, "War." Unger spent several months with a combat unit in Afghanistan. He conveys a sense of how these units come together, and how young men deal with a hard but largely boring routine punctuated by moments of terror.

Two weeks ago I was back at the Naval Academy for my 45th reunion. It hardly seems possible that many years have passed since 803 of us were commissioned on a bright June day in 1965.

The most moving event at our reunion was a memorial service for those in our class who have died. Eight of our classmates died in action in the Vietnam War and an additional 15 died on active duty, many in aircraft accidents.

We read their names and also the names of those who have died subsequently. We sang the "Navy Hymn." We remembered our debt to all of these men who have gone before us. It was a special moment.

Some of you, I hope, took a moment on Veterans Day to reflect on a veteran you have known and also to reflect on the many men and women serving now in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and in many other regions of the world. It is a tough job. We are fortunate to have their service.