Tuesday, November 12, 2013

My Dad and I, by the Numbers on Veterans Day

If my father were alive on this Veterans Day in 2013 he would be 107 years old.  In a strange coincidence of numbers my father left the Army at age 54 after 19 years of service. He did not choose to leave but was forced out without a retirement by the age in grade law passed by the U.S. Congress.

George Gussman enlisted in 1939 for two years. He was 34 years old and just barely got in under the age limit for enlistment which is 34 years and 364 days. On your 35th birthday you are too old to join the Army. After two years of service as an enlisted man, he was going to get out in December 1941. But in December 1941 all discharges were put on hold and Dad stayed in the Army not only for the duration of World War 2, but a total of 19 years.

Although he had only an eighth grade education he had worked in warehouses and the Army needed officers so dad went to Officer Candidate School.   He was commissioned a second lieutenant in 1942. Dad's first command was a black company at Camp Shenango, Pennsylvania.

The Army was not going to send my father overseas because as I well know in Army years my dad was impossibly old in the 1940s. His next command was a prisoner of war camp in what is now the Reading, Pa., Airport.   He served there until the end of the war in charge of 600 Afrika Korps prisoners.

After the war he became a reserve officer and served weekends and summers expecting to retire when he reached 20 years of service. But the age and grade law forced Maj. Gussman out with 19 years and no retirement. He was 54 years old at the time. He left the Army in 1958 when I was five years old.

 I was in high school before I realized how deeply hurt my dad was by the age in grade law and what it meant to him. He was a career soldier he served during World War II and just before he would've got a retirement was rejected. If he blamed anyone he blamed John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Kennedy was a  congressman at the time and voted for this law.

Almost 50 years after my father discharged from the Army I reenlisted in the Army in August 2007 at age 54. At the time I reenlisted I had to sign an initial several pieces of paper said yes I understand I will not be able to retire. I was being allowed back in the Army because the enlistment age was temporarily raised 42 and I had 11 years of prior service so I could get back in with a waiver. But I could not stay in the military long enough to accumulate 20 years and retire. For those who don't know the military retirement requires 20 years of service. As my father showed at 19 years you get nothing.

So in 2015 I will leave the military a year or two short of retiring.

 I got out of the military in 1985 because I was 32 years old and assumed that before I could get 20 years of service I would end up fighting in a war in a desert. On top of that if I survived the desert war I thought was in my future I wouldn't collect any money until I was 60 years old because that's how reserves retirement works. If I had stayed in the Army reserve in the tank unit I was in I would've served during Desert Storm but it was over so quickly I would never have actually gone to Iraq.

And I would have started collecting my military pension this year. But as things turned out I went to my desert war anyway two decades later than I thought and I won't be getting the pension.  I can smile about this.  My Dad was bitter, but I hope wherever he is he can smile at the irony of this.