“I like working for Uncle Sam. Lets me know just who I am.”

I like working for Uncle Sam. Lets me know just who I am.”

      Through the travail of ages, in the process of learning the infantryman’s craft of basic survival, the lowliest trainees in the U.S. Army are taught the proper way to dig a hole in the ground to fight from or sleep in.

The grunts call it a hasty because it’s usually dug in a hurry, and a drill sergeant will say to make it long enough, wide enough and deep enough to get below the surface. The excavated material is stacked along one length, not only to keep out the wind but to absorb shrapnel from an incoming round. In the event of a direct hit, however, no protection is adequate. But all anyone has to do is shovel the dirt back on top of an occupant who has dug his own hasty grave.

It’s one thing to dig one in training but a real epiphany to scoop one out for real on a battlefield. There is no spin, only straight talk, at the foxhole level. And from personal experience, I can say one develops a real appreciation for the ground troops who experience war at that perspective. Even those who emerge unscathed from a hasty grave have a different view of life afterwards.

I dug my own on Feb. 23, 1991, while in the company of the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division inside Iraq ahead of the main ground assault of Desert Storm. That was 18 years after being schooled in basic training. One never knows when a life skill will come in handy.

May is Armed Forces Appreciation Month, and as one who has been a witness to what our men and women from all branches of the service do in time of war, a few humble words are an inadequate tribute. It would take a book to honor them, which still isn’t enough but it’s the least I can do.

Those who serve or who are veterans of the Air Force, Navy, Marines and Army have my undying respect, but in reality, respect is love dressed in Battle Dress Utilities.

While my own uneventful service as the last lottery number ever called in the last draft ever held did not require me to leave the States, I was sent to write about war from the front lines in what now is known as the First Iraq War. At the time, the military brass and media executives had agreed on a pool system of assigning about three dozen journalists to combat units. These pool reports were then to be shared with all media under the coordination of a Joint Information Bureau in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.

My spot was on Army Combat Pool No. 1, which accompanied the 82nd Airborne. But straight up, I was more than embedded. When I hooked up with the division’s Second Brigade, which was the unit that drew the original line in the sand against Iraqi aggression, the commanding officer took it one step further. He said he’d take me to war, to endure what his paratroopers endured, on one condition. I had to join the unit. The Airborne only accepts volunteers.

After mulling over the requirements of arm’s length objectivity and the reporter’s creed of telling it like it is, I shook his hand, and he handed me a set of Airborne patches. It made all the difference in the world on perspective.

Like all other journalists on the media pools, I was bound by operational security while writing dispatches on a manual typewriter I carried with my other gear. But I did ride along in military convoys, encamp in an empty desert nicknamed the Sand Box, accompany troops on night patrols on the very edge of the Iraqi border, stay up on guard duty, go out on night ambushes, put on a gas mask when the alarms went off at three o’clock in the morning, take the nerve gas pills that were issued, brush your teeth in a canteen cup and subsist on a diet of Meals, Ready To Eat.

If you keep your eyes and ears open, you learn what they write in their last letters home and what slice of the real world — a photograph, a lock of hair from a child born while they were away — they tuck inside their Kevlar helmets.

On one occasion, I wrote a story in the day in the life of an infantry company in that time on the enemy’s border after the start of the air war and before the ground assault. That dispatch about the flesh-and-blood All-Americans of Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment made it into print. And some years after the war, those war-fighters, who call themselves The Nasty Boys, made me an honorary member of their unit.

Twenty-six years later, they invited me back to a reunion this month at Fort Bragg during All-American Week, during which anyone who has ever served in the 82nd Airborne is welcomed back to Fayetteville, N.C. This one is even more special because it marks 100 years since the unit was created in World War I. When it was noted the original ranks came from all the states in the Union, the division earned the name All-Americans.

I will say unequivocally that I am the least likely and least qualified person to own a set of Double-A patches, but sometimes the least likely are chosen as messengers, and I take my membership seriously. Some Airborne veterans with wings on their chests who wear Combat Infantryman Badges call me brother, and I love them the way only a brother can. I will take that to my final grave.

The best way I can show my appreciation to them, and to everyone who has ever worn the uniform with honor, is to salute them in person. Airborne All The Way!

Bob Dvorchak became a journalist 50 years ago and worked for eight years as a New York City-based national writer with The Associated Press. He is the author of the recently published book Drive On: The Uncensored War of Bedouin Bob and the All-Americans.