Honoring Our Veterans – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
The HWS Update

Honoring Our Veterans

U.S. Air Force Retired Lt. Col. John Norvell ’66, P’99, P’02 wrote a guest editorial on the subject of military service and Veterans Day that appeared in the Sunday, Nov. 9 issue of the Finger Lakes Times. Noting how veterans of past wars often did not discuss their experiences once they returned home, he writes, “These were events that were often impossible for them to explain and sometimes hard to deal with once they returned home.”

“One can study battles but never really know what the combatants felt. Map makers, historians, and novelists attempt to do this. They try to bring logic to something that is not logical; to bring order to a construct of chaos; to bring light to what is rightly called ‘the Fog of War.’ This is usually done after the fact,” Norvell says. “To the men in combat these events happen in the present, and what happens defines them for the rest of their lives.”

He points out that all who join the armed forces today – from those on the front lines to the chaplains – are in harm’s way from the use of improvised explosive devices, rockets launched into bases and kidnappings of military personnel, among others.

“To wear an American uniform in many parts of the world is akin to putting a bull’s eye on one’s back. Yet to wear a uniform in this county is increasingly something done by fewer and fewer Americans,” says Norvell. “…So it is more than appropriate that we honor our veterans this week.”

Norvell earned a B.A. in American history with high honors from Hobart College. While a student, he was a member of Schola Cantorum, Advanced ROTC, Phi Gamma Mu (the National Social Science Honorary), a Druid and member of the Canterbury Club and Echo and Pine. He served as alumni director at HWS from 1993 until 2002.

His article is available below.


Finger Lakes Times
Wartime events too difficult to explain, even for veterans

John Norvell • November 9, 2014

My father and three of my uncles fought in World War II. Two of the uncles were in the Battle of the Bulge, one of the grimmest episodes of the war. They never talked about it. Like other veterans of past wars, they had experienced events that they could never share with outsiders. These were events that were often impossible for them to explain and sometimes hard to deal with once they returned home.

There is an old saying about combat: “If you’ve been there you understand, if you haven’t I can never tell you about it.”

One can study battles but never really know what the combatants felt. Map makers, historians, and novelists attempt to do this. They try to bring logic to something that is not logical; to bring order to a construct of chaos; to bring light to what is rightly called “the Fog of War.” This is usually done after the fact. To the men in combat these events happen in the present, and what happens defines them for the rest of their lives.

The World War I British poet Siegfried Sassoon has described it this way: “Soldiers are citizens of death’s gray land, Drawing no dividend from time’s tomorrows.”

When I flew combat missions over Vietnam, as I sat in the cockpit, I entered a place that, for me, was where time ceased to exist. In combat there is only the moment at hand to focus on. For me that is what the poet meant.

Some can break free of that moment; others cannot.

Many of the veterans whom we honor this week came home but couldn’t readily escape their experiences. The past, not their tomorrows, held them in its sway. They could not look to the future for solace. We now call this post-traumatic stress disorder – or PTSD. In earlier times it was referred to as “shell shock.” While it would be easy to think that this applies to only those who picked up a gun or flew a combat mission, the persons who join the military today place themselves in harm’s way.

If you are a truck driver, every time you take to the road in the Middle East, you enter a combat zone where there may be improvised explosive devices. Rockets launched at bases put everyone from a cook in the mess hall to the chaplain in danger. Terrorists kidnap service members off the streets, and the results are the same as if they were on the front line. To wear an American uniform in many parts of the world is akin to putting a bull’s eye on one’s back. Yet to wear a uniform in this county is increasingly something done by fewer and fewer Americans.

A recent story in the New York Times stated that less than 1 percent of Americans serve in our military and that many Americans have no connection with them. So it is more than appropriate that we honor our veterans this week.

They are the few who have been there and served, so that the many would not have to.

John E. Norvell is a 1966 graduate of Hobart College. He is a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, a former assistant professor of history at the Air Force Academy and a decorated air combat veteran of the Vietnam War. He lives in Canandaigua.

The photo above features Norvell in front of an F4 Phantom II fighter jet, the main fighter of the Vietnam War. Norvell was a Captain flying a combat mission in 1973, out of Udom Royal Thai Air Force Base, in Thailand.