home about media center archive history links subscribe

Hat Reading,
one thing leads to another,
and a surprise handshake

The spry old vet, in his 80s, was wearing his dusty old WWII vet baseball cap as he calmly moved through the supermarket aisles pushing a shopping cart while his dear ill wife rested at home.  The cap had the usual assortment of little metal miniature replicas of campaign ribbons and medals, a few military icons, his combat infantry badge, and his final rank; the sort of thing any vet understands when 'hat reading' a fellow vet's cap.  If you know what you're looking at, you can 'read' the story of a vet's time in the service from the pins on his cap.  It's not exactly a secret code; there are some 26 million living vets in America.  At VA hospitals, in particular, it's a common experience to realize someone's looking at the top of your head, reading your hat, and perhaps puzzling over some of the more obscure icons.  So, as I stared at his hat for a few seconds more than a casual glance, he 'knew' I was a vet reading his hat.  He gave a friendly grin and nodded.  As he was a WWII vet, he got an automatic salute from me, and a "thank you for serving" greeting.

Unlike those who've endured just two or three years of service, senior NCOs tend to have their rank insignia on their hats along with the other pins.  His had a Sgt First Class insignia.  I told him, "I was an SFC also."  "Ah," he understood: someone who had reenlisted, perhaps several times over.  A bit more mutual respect crossed his eyes; because, it went without saying that, long ago, people's lives had been our hands.  The older you get, the more weariness there is in your eyes when you remember the incredible responsibility you had back when you'd been too young to worry about it.  All that was quietly acknowledged with a little nod and old men's sighs.

"Five years in Europe," he muttered, "and then I signed up in the Reserves because I wanted to see Korea; 22 years in the Reserve."  That was not something he'd tell to just anyone.  Most ordinary people would have thought he'd been crazy as a loon to have volunteered during wartime to go to Korea as a 'combat tourist,' especially after already having served in mortal combat against the Nazi war machine during WWII.    But, I understood as he knew I would.  It wasn't a matter of being particularly brave, nor insane; it was a military mindset and a sense of adventure that most people simply don't have.  We grinned at each other.  I told him a few shorthand details of my Vietnam Era adventures and shared one "no shit" story with him.  We parted ways and each went on with his shopping.

Later, we crossed paths again by the refrigerated packaged lunch meat racks.  Without preamble, he told the story of his WWII combat in Italy.  He knew that I'd be glad to pause and listen, which I was, while most ordinary folks would roll their eyes and look for a way to politely escape.  We were two old vets who were not in the slightest hurry.

I didn't really want to spoil this old vet's fun conversation by mentioning that I was a "GAY VET."  Why upset a courageous WWII vet who meant no harm and was just enjoying an afternoon chat about the old days?  I'd already told him that I'd served in the Navy and later in the Army Reserve.  "So, how long were you in?" he asked.  "Well, just ten years," I told him.  He wondered why I hadn't gone for the long haul and full retirement benefits.  I'm an activist, it doesn't really take much to get me to speak up, so I said, "Well, after being a leader, it just didn't feel right to keep hiding who I was any longer.  So, I left.  I'm a gay vet, you see."  His mouth fell open and he was silent for a long moment.  "Oh damn," I thought, "now I've ruined his day."  Then he reached out, grabbed my hand and shook it vigorously, while chapping me on the shoulder.  "I'm glad you had the courage to tell me that," he said; "my Sgt Major at Ft. Totten, was gay, and there was no finer soldier that I'd ever served with!"

Times really have changed.

  2010 Gay Military Signal