The Soldier We Never Knew…By Daniel B. Rundquist

Special to the Caldwell Journal (By Dan Rundquist – 11/11/2016)…Up until recently, Americans traditionally celebrated our national heritage all across the country in unity. Today, it is becoming more and more commonplace for some folks to disrespect our flag “in protest” of some this-or-that issue either real or imagined. We have been through this before. Recall that our returning soldiers from the Vietnam War were not hailed as heroes, but were instead often mistreated by the media, spit on by the public, and ignored by the same government that sent them into harm’s way— while some citizens burned flags in protest.

It is the responsibility of those of us who are a bit more seasoned to help educate our younger Americans in the ways of responsible citizenship. Part of this education has to include an understanding of why we respect our servicemen and the flag that represents our nation. Yes, we have Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day, but to someone under the age of 30 they might well mistake these markers for mere retail sales events if we didn’t tell them otherwise.

One of the most illustrative examples I often share with young folks today about our servicemen is the story of the soldier we never knew and so it is for their benefit that I repeat it here.

In the campaign of 1776, Private Joseph Plumb Martin awoke one cool morning to rise from the shallow ditch which he’d dug to sleep in, with water that had collected in the night now up to his shoes. Soaking wet, he was worried that he and many in his unit would take sick, and he was right to be concerned, as he and others did indeed become ill. But it would not be the last time Private Martin would suffer while serving under General Washington.

Martin had enlisted at the age of just 16, leaving his grandparent’s home in New England to fight for the cause of Independence. He wanted to become a soldier in spite of the objections of his family. Like many revolutionary recruits, Martin discovered that the reality of serving is not nearly as romantic as the notion of serving. In his journal, Martin was not exaggerating when he wrote about his condition at the engagement against the British in the campaign in 1777, “…I endured hardships sufficient to kill half a dozen horses…In the cold month of November, without provisions, without clothing, not a scrap of either shoes or stockings to my feet or legs, and in this condition to endure a siege in such a place…was appalling to the highest degree.”

Martin was one of the unfortunates who had to camp for the winter in Valley Forge during his service. The soldiers stationed there were faced with evolving terrible choices as the days grew colder. There was very little and often no food to be had. Clothing was in very short supply and so the men had to decide –they could stay and face death from exposure, disease, or starvation—or try to leave for home where there was food but face execution for desertion if caught.

“We marched from Valentine’s hill for the White Plains, in the night…We had our cooking utensils, (at that time the most useless things in the army.) to carry in our hands. They were made of cast iron and consequently heavy. I was beat out before morning, with hunger and fatigue that I could hardly move one foot before the other. I told my messmates that I could not carry our kettle any further; they said they would not carry it any further; of what use was it? They had nothing to cook…”

In the course of his narrative, Martin refers to hunger and starvation more often than any other affliction he and his fellow soldiers suffered. Over time, Americans have greatly improved the quality and quantity of provisions and equipment for those in service in our armed forces; although it is right to argue that we still have much room for improvement. Soldiers today generally do not suffer as Martin did, but they do still suffer.

Aside from the obvious risk to life and limb for the soldiers in forward positions facing the enemy, many more servicemen are often separated from their families for extended periods of time and by great distances. A soldier gives up much of his productive life to military service—it’s hard to get rich on a soldier’s pay, and yet it is a life of service that they choose. We call that sacrifice and dedication.

Over the course of his service to our young nation, Joseph Plumb Martin would suffer from hardship, nakedness, exposure, hunger, poverty, food poisoning, colds, sleep deprivation, fatigue, small pox, dysentery, boils, and a broken ankle which he “hopped on” for five miles before being set, and again reset a day later without anesthesia. All of this had occurred in only the first two years of his enlistment. Most men having suffered this way might conclude that they had made a serious error in their career choice. But not Martin, incredibly, he continued to serve his new country, reenlisting to the end of the war—and suffering and starving for the duration. He never even received his full salary for his service.

But Martin also suffered psychologically, and not just from taking enemy fire in combat. When he enlisted the United States was joined under the Articles of Confederation. By the time the war ended, he realized that the government he had enlisted under didn’t even exist anymore—having been scrapped and replaced with a new federalized government. The government’s mistreatment of its military did not sit well with Martin as he later reflected.

“Had I been paid as I was promised to be at my engaging in the service, I needed not to have suffered as I did, nor would I have done it; there was enough in the country, and money would have procured it if I had had it. It is provoking to think of it. The country was rigorous in exacting my compliance to my engagements to a punctilio, but equally careless in performing her contracts with me; and why so? One reason was, because she had all the power in her own hands, and I had none. Such things ought not be.”

I believe it is a disservice for Veteran’s Day to fall on a day in November, both for our youth to understand and the veterans who deserve recognition. In reality, every day is Veteran’s Day. The 4th of July is Veteran’s Day, Election Day is Veteran’s Day, Flag Day, Constitution Day—yes, all the same Veteran’s Day in my way of thinking. Our Founders may have declared our independence, our Statesmen framed the Republic, our politicians run the government, but everything America has today is because our armed forces secured it.

I am in the habit of thanking every veteran I see in my travels, all the time, and it’s not enough. It is so important for these fine individuals (and their families if they happen to be with them) to understand that the citizens of the United States remember, appreciate, and support them—that is OUR duty to them, and to so many others before them who suffered as Martin did, and gave their lives; a debt we can never hope to repay.

Dan Rundquist is a Caldwell Journal Contributor.

Copyright 2017 Caldwell Journal on behalf of Dan Rundquist. All rights reserved.