Almost three years ago, my hero passed away. We didn’t always see eye to eye, and some of those disagreements were painful for both of us. He saw the foolish mistakes of my youth; I saw his failures, his anger and his bitterness. In spite of that, there is no one I’ve known that I want to be like more.
Master Sergeant Thomas E. Elliott volunteered to serve in the United States Army in 1967. While others were draft dodging, he chose to join without being drafted. His oldest brother (13 yrs. his senior), who had already done one tour in Korea and one in Vietnam, was scheduled to go back to Nam, keeping my father stateside.
This is not to say that he didn’t go to war. The same day that my father arrived at his permanent duty station, Mart Luther King, Jr. was killed and race riots erupted across the country. Martial Law was declared in the District of Columbia and he was handed a weapon and sent downtown before he had finished checking in. As he put it, ‘You didn’t have to leave the country to go to war’.
He was stationed at Ft. Meyer, VA, starting in the 3rd Infantry, Honor Guard. He told me of hippies sticking daisies in the barrel of his M-16 while standing guard at the Pentagon. He showed me his letter from Ethel Kennedy thanking him for standing guard through two nine-hour shifts at Robert F. Kennedy’s grave. He said that he once sat in the War Room, simply because he had the clearance to.
By 1972, less than five years from his original enlistment, he was the youngest E-7 (at that time Specialist ranks went to E-9) in the entirety of the Armed Forces. Also by that point, he was working supply for Pershing’s Own, The United States Army Band. By 1979, he was promoted to Master Sergeant.
When he retired in 1988, over the course of his career he had received a Meritorious Unit Citation, the Army Commendation Medal, the Army Good Conduct Medal (six times), the National Defense Service Medal, the Army Service Ribbon, and the Meritorious Service Medal.
During a large majority of this time, he also worked an evening job, as a non-commissioned officer’s pay and allowances didn’t exactly keep up with the cost of living in Fairfax Co. Before I was born, he shot pool for grocery money. Later, he would work security, at a grocery store, at a Christian bookstore, and pizza delivery.
After his retirement, we moved to Goshen, IN, where he received his bachelor’s degree in Bible/Religion from Goshen College in 1992. A year later he received a Certificate in Pastoral Counseling from what is now Anabaptist Seminary in Elkhart, IN.
He spent only seven more years in the workforce, as his disabilities forced him to completely retire at the age of 51. After college, he spent a few years working two full-time jobs, one in the mental health field, the other doing auto-cad work for a construction company. He spent his last years working in the Elkhart Truth’s circulation dept.
As to his disabilities, it’s hard to list them due to their number. When he entered the service in ’67, he had already had a broken hip and numerous broken ankles (he passed his entrance physical wearing a cast). Some of them were just poor genetics, some from poor choices (he was a smoker)… Bad back, fibromyalgia, heart and lung issues, pinched nerves from various accidents… The list goes on. In the end, he put off getting a new symptom checked because he thought it was just side-effects of the many, many medications he was on. But none of that is an excuse for the way VA treated him.
When he retired, he had been married nineteen years and had four children under eighteen. The VA had him listed as single, with no children, and set his benefits accordingly. The year it took to fix that was the darkest of his life (details of which I do not wish to relive).
Once that mess was cleared up, the fight for good medical care and proper disability rating began. Letters to congressmen and senators, long trips to VA hospitals, countless hours on the phone with faceless, uncaring bureaucrats… and then, disability pay that subtracts from the pension… This is how our government treats those who broke themselves in our service. In my discussions with younger disabled veterans, VA is even worse now than it was then.
So much of my life has been an attempt to emulate my father. In his youth, he played trumpet and basketball, to the detriment of his studies. In my youth, I played trumpet and basketball, to the detriment of my studies. I have worked security, at grocery stores, at a Christian music store, for the newspaper, in construction, and in the mental health field.
In 2001, at the age of twenty-four and after two knee surgeries, I attempted to follow his footsteps into the United States Army. It didn’t go very well. I was out of shape and while I pushed through the first PT test, the next day I could hardly stand, let alone march or run.
So after having been at Ft. Knox for almost two weeks waiting to enter Basic Training, less than forty-eight hours after starting I was told I was to be sent home. That evening, in my frustration, I punched my wall locker. This resulted in a broken hand and an Article 15 for destruction of government property (myself). It also completed my ‘dead man’s profile’.
The next four weeks were a sort of psychological hell that I wish not to relive. I went into the service a messed-up twenty-four year old child. I left the service a more messed-up twenty-four year old, but the child had died. It was there that I found a deeper respect for those who make it through and for those more broken that I was. In my hell, I learned to lean upon God more than I had, and it was there that my path to Orthodoxy started.
From the standpoint of the U.S. Government, I am not a Veteran. I point this out for those who would give me such honor, but that valor is not mine. However, from my personal perspective, my, ‘I do solemnly swear…so help me God’ cannot have an expiration date. I solemnly swore, to God. I stand by that, and in support of our Veterans.