Honoring veterans before and afterPublished 11:07am Monday, November 7, 2011
Friday, as every Nov. 11, is legally designated and traditionally observed as Veterans Day. I might find some awkwardness in writing about this inasmuch as I am among those who are veterans. However, I feel comfortable and confident in doing so because I think the more of other veterans. I think with profound gratitude and serious admiration both of those who served prior to my enlistment in the navy and those who served since my retirement from the army.
The first veteran I knew was my father, who served in “the great war,” and I was told of my great great grandfather who had been an army chaplain in the Civil War. I was taught in school about General Washington and his soldiers. As a Boy Scout planting flags on veterans’ graves and marching in parades on what was then called Decoration Day and now Memorial Day, I met veterans. Two, then ancient in appearance, had been drummer boys in the Civil War. There were more veterans of the Spanish-American, and a greater number from the Mexican Border War. The greatest number had served in World War I (then known simply as the World War). Every Armistice Day (what is now designated Veterans Day), all classes at Green Bay Avenue School were led out onto the playground. At exactly eleven o’clock, we stood in unusual and strange silence for three minutes to commemorate the signing of the armistice that ended the “war to end all wars.” In 1940 the American Legion held its national convention in Milwaukee, and we saw veterans everywhere. They were silly and almost riotous, but we sensed they earned the right.
Then the senior scouts started going into the army and navy (no separate air force, then). Blue-star flags began to appear in neighborhood windows and then became changed to silver stars. Our church hung a large banner immediately behind the pulpit, in a place very much of honor, with a star for each man and woman who had enlisted or been drafted. Then some silver stars became gold stars. One was for Lt Jack Cook, my baby-sitter and hero. They came home on furlough and leave, and I recognized their insignia and ribbons, because I had memorized them from charts in The Saturday Evening Post. It was years until Journalist Tom Brokaw coined the term “the Greatest Generation,” but I recognized it then.
Early in my military career I served under World War II veterans and learned from their experiences. I admired them all and felt unworthy to succeed them. I feel, today, a great tenderness to those fewer veterans who remain, and I am honored to know them and do what I can to help them. I still feel unworthy of them. They went through things we did not need to go through, and part of the reason is that they did go through them.
My time began at the very end of World War II and extended through Korea and Vietnam and right into Desert Shield, when I reluctantly accepted retirement.
A son followed my military career with childish awe, and then he became an armor officer and fought in the first Gulf War. He became a soldier more quickly than I and was a far better soldier. I got to know his comrades and admired them all. His battalion commander, on whose staff he served, is now chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I look at today’s soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen, and they amaze me with their achievements. I cannot do what they are now doing routinely, and I do not think I ever could.
I served at a time when combat deployments were limited, but these brave and faithful guys and gals (far more than in my day) suffer multiple deployments. My substantial separations from family were both prior to children and after they had left home. I cry for the spouses and children these leave behind so frequently. Yet, when they learn of mine, they say: “Sir, thank you for your service.” I feel humbled once again.
On this Veterans Day, this old soldier salutes those who served before me and after me. God bless you and keep you.