WASHINGTON - Time magazine named the American soldier its Person of the Year for 2003. The American soldier (read: Army, Marines, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard) has been my person of the year every year through four decades and three wars, beginning with Vietnam.
Largely unsung and unnoticed, the American soldier does the hard, dirty work of keeping freedom alive, year in and year out, in a world growing ever more violent and dangerous.
Soldiers put their lives on the line in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan and Bosnia and Kosovo, to name just a few of the 120 places around the world where American soldiers stand between people bent on killing each other, where they teach the soldiers of other nations, and where they pursue the shadowy terrorists who would bring darkness to the world.
To those we owe so much we pay so little that the spouses and children of volunteer enlisted soldiers sometimes have no choice but to seek public welfare. They exist in shabby trailer parks on the outskirts of places such as Fort Hood and Fort Riley and Fort Stewart while their loved ones soldier in some foreign country for months, if not years. We should be ashamed.
The Army has changed much in the four decades since I first marched into combat in Vietnam. Then most soldiers were draftees, young men who hadn't made it into college and were called to two years' service by their hometown draft board.
They didn't ask to be called, but didn't run away to Canada or turn up for their draft physicals wearing pantyhose. They went when called and served where ordered, which meant in a hellish jungle war against a formidable foe.
They died by the thousands, were wounded by the hundreds of thousands. Those who made it home unscratched were by no means untouched. They carried the scars of witnessing brutal infantry combat at an age when they should have been home, dreaming of cars and girls. What a homecoming they received from a nation deeply divided over a badly mismanaged war.
But for their bravery and sacrifice I would not be here to write these poor words of praise for them. Ronald Reagan called Vietnam a "noble war." It was not. It was a mistake. But the soldiers sent to fight that war were noble. No one could explain to them why they were there or what they were fighting for, so they did the only thing they could: They fought for each other.
Their era ended with the war they fought. The draft went away 30 years ago and a volunteer force took their place. The first job would be to rebuild the Army, which was shattered by Vietnam, broken by indiscipline, drugs and racial conflict. Those soldiers and NCOs and officers stayed around to rebuild something they loved, and they labored for years to create a finely trained and armed force.
That Army, and those new soldiers, stunned the world with what they did in the Persian Gulf war, Operation Desert Storm. In just 100 hours of swift ground combat, they routed the Iraqis and liberated Kuwait.
Before the last soldier made it home from that outing, the Army was being cut back from 12 divisions to 10. So the force would shrink but also grow more lethal.
The American soldier was deployed again and again: Somalia, Grenada, Panama, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq one more time. The politicians of both parties seem so much more willing to draw the sword these days.
The Army was whittled to only 480,000 great soldiers. Too few called on to do too much. The National Guard and Reserves had to fill in the gap every time America moved militarily.
I see them sometimes in my dreams, and they are always the same, these American soldiers: Young, gaunt, burdened like pack animals, homesick, wary, weary - and so proud to be serving their country.
They give so much and ask so little. The next time you see a man or woman in uniform, just walk up, shake hands and say: Thank you for your service.
And watch the tears come into their eyes.
Joseph L. Galloway is the senior military correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
Columnist Linda Chavez will return Jan. 1.