The Corner

A Simple Question

In a column on Wednesday, I brought up an issue I’d brought up before, actually: street beggars and their claims of being military veterans. Probably half the beggars I encounter claim to be veterans, maybe more. Often they have American flags. And it has always been thus.

When I was growing up, every beggar claimed to be a Vietnam vet. But then they started to get too young to have been in Vietnam. I looked at them and started doing the math, if you know what I mean. I’d think, “Dude, you look about 22, and it’s now 1986. You served in Vietnam?”

Anyway, the issue came up the other day, when I observed a beggar on W. 57th St. (Manhattan). Very loud and belligerent. “Can you help a veteran get something to eat?” A pedestrian passes. “Semper fi!” the beggar says, sarcastically. Again the refrain: “Can you help a veteran get something to eat?” Another pedestrian passes. “Very American of you!” bellows the beggar.

In my column, I wrote, “You know what I’d like? If one night, a beggar said, ‘I’m not a veteran, I’m not appealing to your patriotism. I just want some money for a hit.’ That, I could respect (more).”

Well, I received a fair amount of mail on this subject, and I’d like to publish one letter, from an Army officer. See what you think:

Beggars who claim to be veterans tend to hit me up quite a bit, especially when I’m in uniform . . . Over the years, I developed a simple way to determine whether they are telling the truth — I simply ask for their MOS, or Military Occupational Specialty.

Every Soldier or Marine has one. (Airmen have something similar, an AFSC; Naval personnel have “ratings.”) By the time you finish Basic Training and Advanced Individual Training, this code is as much a part of you as your fingernails. It’s embedded in your DNA.

Out of literally hundreds of beggars who have claimed to be vets, in order to pry money from me, only three knew what my question meant and had an answer. Two of them were former Marines. One of these was a drunk who used to crash out on my lawn; the other was booted out for disciplinary reasons, probably drugs.

The third guy was Army, an actual Vietnam vet who produced a tattered DD 214 (which is the document for all military discharges). I tried to get him a job, but he never showed up for the interview.

For the Army, the MOS is a two-digit number and a letter, pronounced like “Eleven Bravo” (i.e., 11B, infantry) or “Nineteen Delta” (19D, Cavalry Scout). For the Marines, it’s a four-digit code, usually beginning with zero, but pronounced “oh,” as in Oh-three-eleven (0311, infantry). Airmen have separate but related lingo; a Naval beggar would state that he was a machinist’s mate or the like.

Your guy on W. 57th appears to have been claiming to have been a Marine, since he knew enough to shout “Semper fi,” so he should have a four-digit code. The next time someone panhandles you and claims to be a veteran, just ask his MOS and see if he has an answer.

I don’t know if I have the brass to do that. And I have great sympathy for many beggars, to whom life has been unkind. But false claims of military service, in order to increase “income”: That’s kind of lousy.

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