It’s Veterans Day. I’m looking in the bathroom mirror and asking an important question: Am I a veteran? Yeah, but not a combat veteran like Travis Mills and other heroes who lost their arms and legs and their lives in so many of our wars.

Now understand, there are men and women veterans like myself who served overseas without having heard a shot fired.

They peeled potatoes in Japan, they typed morning reports in Tokyo or Paris, they repaired engines so far away from combat they thought they were in Seattle.

I was one of those. My four years here and abroad were like all the years of my life, basically a late night sitcom much like “M*A*S*H.”

This is the way it would look on a TV rerun: Every word, every character here is true. You can’t make a life like mine up. All names have been changed, especially Betty Jo’s.

ACT ONE: In June 1951, to avoid being drafted, I enlisted in the Air Force and arrived at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. A week later I was sleeping in an open tent in the desert.

Our drill sergeant from Alabama, who had just had all of his teeth extracted and was raising donations from us to pay for his Mexican girlfriend’s abortion, shouted, “You see that thing over there that looks like a piece of rope? That there’s a snake. Steer clear of snakes. They will bite you, and your body will be shipped home at your own expense.”

Clicking his new false teeth, he continued.

“If it wiggles, it’s a snake. Y’all listening to me? Don’t touch nothin’ that wiggles.”

ACT 2: The firing range. July and 113 degrees. We were given a carbine and a clip of real bullets. Laying prone, we started shooting at targets 200 yards away.

I emptied my clip while someone out behind the targets kept waving red flags back and forth, which, I learned, meant that I had missed all my shots.

“Airman,” Sgt. Teeth shouted, “can you see the target?”

I rolled over, waving my rifle around.

While everyone else ducked for cover, “Teeth” quickly disarmed me.

“Airman,” he shouted. “Please keep your weapon pointed at the ground.”

He then lay down beside me and said, “Are you aware that you have failed to hit your target?”


“It’s because you have been shooting at your buddy’s target, and you even failed to hit his. Are you ashamed, Airman Devine?”


ACT 3: August 1951: As part of Flight 23, I was shipped along with my fellows to a small college in Louisiana to learn to type and create military classified correspondence.

Allowed to wear civilian clothing, we were told to say only that we were there to learn to type, which, of course, raised suspicions, which of course, we used to our advantage for example.

ACT 4: On a warm Southern evening, Betty Jo Jefferson and I sat on a swing bench on the porch of the Kappa Delta House.

“J.P.,” she whispered, “Mary Beth says y’all gonna be spies.”

“You know,” I whispered, “I can’t discuss that, Betty Jo,” crossing my typing fingers behind my back.

“They say y’all going to Korea to fight in the war.”

“One never knows, Betty Jo,” I said as I pulled her closer.

“This might be the last time we see each other.”


Having lost my only stripe because of Betty Jo, I found myself at a small base near Tokyo, debriefing personnel returning from Korea.

Our job was to relieve real war veterans of pistols, knives, an occasional live hand grenade, and souvenir body parts. I’m not lying. From one officer, I took a suspicious sandwich bag.

“What is this, sir? Is this an ear? Is this a human ear?”

“It’s a souvenir.”

“It’s an ear, sir.”

“Well, I bought it from a marine in Seoul.”

“You can’t take human body parts back to the states, sir.”

“Well, can I mail it?”

ACT 6: Hamilton Air Force Base, San Francisco, California.

I was to finish my career in a mysterious, windowless blockhouse overlooking San Francisco Bay.

It turns out they needed a typist/reader in OID (that’s the Office of Intelligence Director), and I was assigned to sit by a red telephone for an entire year. This allowed me to honestly tell girls — for the rest of my life — that I was in Air Force Intelligence.

Here’s the punch line: I was never able to get cast in the entire 11 years of TV’s “M*A*S*H.”

They said I didn’t look like a real G.I. in the khaki fatigue uniform. Oh boy.

Happy Veterans Day to Travis Mills and other vets who are real.

J.P. Devine is a Waterville writer.

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