I was so humbled by my latest journalistic experience. Joining a media flight in the B-17 “Memphis Belle” wasn’t just an assignment for me. It was an eye-opener to how lucky my life has been so far.
For those of us who never joined the military and have not had to experience war firsthand, we can’t truly understand what it means. I was only able to get a small glimpse into that experience, one that didn’t involve flying over a war-torn country or bullets flying in our direction, but still one that made me appreciate that I may not ever have to be in their shoes.
Unlike today, where it is a common thing to create a lifestyle without military service, the majority of the guys who rode the Memphis Belle weren’t so lucky. When we leveled out in the sky, I took a look out the window at the spinning propellers and imagined being a scared teenager sent to war. I thought about my wife and kids, and how this plane better land safely so I could see them again later that evening. I thought about how being away from them for a weekend can be hard sometimes, and soldiers of the past and even today have to do it for months or even years.
That same smell of exhaust fumes could have been the last these soldiers ever experienced. Pretending to fire the “waist” and “chin” guns was a game for me, but it could have been a nightmare for them. They had to take lives or lose theirs, possibly the most intense emotion human beings can experience. I may never comprehend what that is like.
The seats we strapped ourselves in were small. We were packed tight, my photographer and I trying to avoid touching knees as we faced one another in what felt like unfolded and battered lawn chairs made for children. I got grease on my jeans and was annoyed, then laughed at myself for the ridiculousness of such an emotion. It wasn’t blood, after all.
Listening to former pilot Dick Austin literally tell old war stories was inspiring. It felt like we were listening to the plot of a Hollywood blockbuster movie, of which he lived. And he lived it through 35 missions, once coming home with what he said was 350 bullet holes in his plane. He spoke with such confidence and pride, both jovial and serious at times, like he felt lucky not only to still be alive, but to have lived a full life in every way imaginable. I wondered if I’d be able to look back on my adventures the same way one day, and if a life without the experience of war could be as appreciated. I hope it can.
I thanked him for his service after my interview and drove to the office thinking, “Wow, the things these guys had to go through…”
Times are different today. We aren’t involved in a world war. Military personnel already enlisted are taking care of business for us civilians, allowing us to go about our day-to-day lives without worry, fear or the same responsibilities. We can function in a normal society here in the United States without the obligation of front line duty. We’re basically allowed to choose our paths in life, and I’ve chosen to be a writer and not a soldier.
My choice has an impact on society, too, and I firmly believe my job is an important one to the functioning of our American lifestyles. My weapon is a pen and not a rifle, and my enemy is injustice — or whatever other ideal we journalists are trying to embrace these days — and not a suicide bomber or opposing soldier firing an RPG.
This wasn’t always the case for wannabe writers, though. Many writers a generation or two ahead of me first served in some military capacity before settling on a career as a journalist, or author, actor or whatever else. Our own Editor in Chief Mike Raffety served in the U.S. Navy from 1965-69 before embarking upon a career as a journalist and photographer.
When the draft — or conscription in the United States — was discontinued in 1973, things changed. Our military became volunteer based and not mandatory. The Selective Service System is still in place as a backup plan, and I (at the time), like most men between 18 and 25, made up that list ready to be called if necessary. Luckily, it never was necessary.
So I’ve created a different course for my life, and boy am I appreciative for the opportunity to do so. It is because of guys like those originally seated in that B-17 bomber that I have the freedom to make the decisions I have today. I’m so thankful for their sacrifices to our country, and for being able to not have to do the same.
Patrick Ibarra is the managing editor of the Mountain Democrat.