Mark Shields: The end of an admirable era

Mark Shields

Mark Shields

After 42 years of steadfast service to his country, Chief Warrant Officer 5 Ralph E. Rigby recently retired from the U.S. Army. More memorable than the official celebration ceremony, which rightly marked the end of this loyal American’s service, was the national policy that made his career possible. Ralph Rigby was almost certainly the last soldier on active duty who had been drafted into military service.

This retirement truly marks the end of an American era — an era I would argue was admirable. In 1972, when Rigby, a native of Auburn, New York, entered the Army, 402 members of Congress — because of the draft law in force between 1940 and 1973 — had themselves served in the military. There was a time when the sons of the powerful and the privileged did not avoid or evade serving their country, a more equal time when defending the nation was every American man’s responsibility.

Think about this. After surviving combat in North Africa and Sicily, 56-year-old Theodore Roosevelt Jr. successfully lobbied to personally lead a D-Day landing at Utah Beach. Awarded the Medal of Honor after his brave but weakened heart gave out in the summer of 1944, he is buried next to his brother Quentin, who died fighting in France in World War I, in the American cemetery at Normandy.

Stephen Hopkins, whose father, Harry, was President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s closest White House adviser, was an 18-year-old Marine private first class when he was killed by a Japanese sniper’s bullet in the Pacific. FDR had four sons. All served, and all faced enemy fire. Elliott Roosevelt enlisted in the Army Air Corps and flew 300 combat missions. As a Marine in combat in the Pacific, his brother Jimmy earned a Navy Cross, along with a Silver Star, which Navy Lt.

Cmdr. Franklin Roosevelt Jr. did, as well, for saving the lives of his crew members under heavy enemy fire. Navy Lt. John Roosevelt won a Bronze Star.

Before he would become governor of Virginia and a U.S. senator, Chuck Robb was a young Marine lieutenant during two combat tours in Vietnam. Married to Lynda Bird Johnson, Robb, nearly a half-century later, remains the most recent son or son-in-law of an American president to go into combat.

Willie Mays, the most complete baseball player of his generation, was drafted into the Army and served. So did the reigning icon of American popular culture of the 1950s, Elvis Presley. Great American novelists Leon Uris and William Styron were both Marines. Baseball immortal Ted Williams gave up five years to be a Marine pilot in both World War II and Korea. Who else served in uniform? How about writers James Michener, Norman Mailer and Herman Wouk? Leading Hollywood stars such as Clark Gable and James Stewart, who flew 20 combat missions? Joe Louis, boxing’s heavyweight champion, joined the Army. Among those facing enemy fire were future U.S. presidents John F. Kennedy, George H.W. Bush and Gerald Ford.

There was a time when even influential Americans were actually willing, if not eager, to put country ahead of career, ambition and personal safety. This is not nostalgia; this is actual semi-recent history. There was a time, let us remember, when Americans’ personal commitment to military service involved much more than the cheap symbol of a flag pin on a lapel or a “Support Our Troops” bumper sticker on an SUV.

History has painfully taught us that the strength of a nation is measured by the will and resolve of that nation’s people to stand together for the common good through across-the-board individual sacrifice. Don’t know about you, but I haven’t seen a whole lot of that lately.


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