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The American Privilege Issue

There is hardly a day that goes by that I don’t remember living in Southeast Asia for almost 2 years. According to my DD-214 (Certificate of Release or Discharge from Active Military Duty) it was exactly 651 days. What sparks this reoccurring memory is usually the fact that I have clean sheets, air conditioning, security, or potable water coming out of my faucet.

The old proverb that you never know what you have until it’s gone is very true, but in my case, it was and still is just the opposite. After experiencing the culture shock of leaving modern American life and being dropped into Third World country conditions, I got an instant education into American privilege. Notice I didn’t say white privilege? What I experienced affected all of us military folks who have lived this.

“People say you don't know what you've got until it’s gone. Truth is, you knew what you had; you just never thought you'd lose it, or frankly, took it for granted.”

I remember carrying a half dozen canteens over to the Security Police Squadron to fill them from a hanging canvas bag, G.I.’s referred to as a water buffalo. If I wanted potable water, this is where I had to go. My hootch room had one hanging light bulb, for which I was thankful and eventually I procured not one, but 2 oscillating fans to keep the room temperature bearable. Being in Base Supply had its perks, as hardly anyone had more than one fan.

Being stationed in the dreaded Cobra Triangle of Central Thailand, walking to the communal shower at night meant that it was a “Do I rinse off before I try to sleep, or just lay sweating?” conundrum. One way or the other, I was going to begin sweating within 15 minutes anyway, even with the fans. This meant that all night or day, depending on my schedule, I was going to toss and turn rotisserie style in my sleep, or cook on the bottom side.

“Appreciate what you have before it becomes what you had.”

My hootch had wooden slats that were screened and kept most critters out and those first months were fraught with anxiety, but we humans can learn to adapt to almost any condition – if we are forced to that is. Roaches the size of a pack of gum would sometimes crawl over me when I slept, or a large lizard would find its way in my small room. Occasionally other crawling things would come in goodly numbers and at first it really shook me. One time I sprayed one of these hug roaches with official C-130 aircraft insecticide, which was supposed to kill any bug trying to get back to the States on a free ride.

After 30 minutes, I squashed it with my jungle boot and this was after it jumped, flew, and crawled all over the room, flicking its wings. It was an impressive display and one that was quite educational and I’ll be honest and say I never took my eyes off it.  Months into my double deployment, I would squash a crawling bug in my half sleep, toss it on the floor and rolling over, go back to sleep.

“Don't take things for granted because they might not be there tomorrow.”

I remember coming back to the States and marveling at how rich of a country we had. The year was 1974 and everywhere I looked were new cars and signs of prosperity. People owned a lot of stuff and guess what? None of that has changed. In fact, we own 2 and 3 times more now than then. Every car has air conditioning and automatic transmissions. People have so much food, they could literally live on half what they eat. Every person here is privileged, make no mistake about it and don’t let some rich athlete or entertainer try to convince you otherwise. They need to hop on a jet airplane and be dropped off in a stinking jungle like we were and have the same options we did and by golly, they will change their tune right quick.

Belly aching and whining is for wimpy over-paid elitists looking for a cause that most of us don’t want to hear about. They live the life of luxury and can afford to lose endorsements while they get by on their 19 or 30 million dollar salaries. They can’t be content to take their kids crabbing, or spend the night in a tent after sitting around a campfire in one of our beautiful State parks. They have to act up and regardless of their constitutional right; they appear to be what they are – overpaid elitists, using their status to draw attention to something they can’t really relate to.

They’ve lost sight of what they have and live in a fantasy world where they think they represent those of us who still appreciate the small conveniences and blessings. They don’t represent me. If they really want to make a difference, there are better ways than acting in such a manner as to divide this great country. Anyone can become a rock in a shoe, but it takes someone special to have the vision of an ambassador and act on it.


Anonymous said…
FU: Bert,

Thanks for the reality check.

Anonymous said…
AL: Allyce Lankford Some people should be given a pair of scissors, a pat on the back, and told to RUN!!!
Dona Rena said…
I fully agree Bert!
Anonymous said…
Mr Marshall,

Your recent article entitled, "The American Privilege Issue" was excellent. I cut it out and plan to send it to my college aged daughter. Thank you for serving our country and sharing your experience.


Holly Takach
Anonymous said…

You were sooooo privileged in Southeast Asia !!
You had Pabst Blue Ribbon beer to drink !!
Check the corner of your desk in the picture.

Jerry L. Jones
Anonymous said…
Larry Houston Some of these hyphenated Americans are a bit short when it comes to the "American" part...
Anonymous said…
PG: Bert, sounds like you had it a little worse than some of us in Vietnam and a little better at the same time.

Our barracks were cubicles and not rooms, but we all had a fan in our cube too. We also had the same humidity and used lots & lots of talcum powder after each shower. Which, BTW, were included in our barracks.

The barracks themselves were mostly made of plywood, chicken wire for windows and about 4 foot high, 4 inch thick walls of concrete on the bottom floors. The chicken wire was to keep grenades from being thrown in. The concrete to keep out mortar & rocket shrapnel.

We did not have the critters you seemed to have had, but I did wake up a couple of nights to rats the size of raccoons walking around.

But you are most definitely correct, you do not realize what you are missing until you don't have it any more!!

Was your offices air conditioned? Fortunately mine were, but the barracks sure weren't!! It was a very rude awakening.

And so were the rocket & mortar attacks, even one by "friendly fire"!!!

Thanks, I think, for bring back those memories and a great appreciation for what we all have now.
Anonymous said…
Deb Hearn: We sure do appreciate what we have after tasting the alternative.
Anonymous said…
DDC: Bert, I didn't get to read the paper this morning because it was late getting here. I had to go to work, so I didn't get to see it until just a few minutes ago. Very, very good column, brother. I know I have no idea of what you and many others endured while serving your country.. You are so right. We really don't appreciate what we have until it's taken away. I'm afraid that America has a very rude awakening coming one day soon. When I worked in the refinery laboratory, there were a few younger folks who worked there who had just hired in. For some it was the first job they ever had, right out of college. All I heard out of them was griping about how hard they had it. They had never had a job where they had to get out in the sun all day, or crawled through a hot, greasy tower doing inspection work or mechanical repairs. One day all our freedoms and luxuries are going to be taken away from us and we will beg for the simplest things we used to take for granted. It's sad, but we had better wake up and thank God for living in this great, wonderful, awesome country that we are PRIVILEGED to live in! Thank you, Bert. Thank you for your column and most of all, your service to this country. God bless you and your family.

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