Thanking those who servedPublished 10:46am Monday, November 12, 2012
Yesterday, many nice people were especially nice to me because it was Veterans Day. I have received multiple invitations to special events and opportunities, and I saw yet others announced of which I could take advantage. In point of fact, there were so many, I couldn’t take them all in.
I say now, “Thank you.” I and my comrades feel respected and appreciated.
The only time in my long life military veterans have been more thanked and praised than now was during and after World War II. Then I was one of those doing the thanking, being too young to enlist. I so admired these men, I enlisted in the navy at 0730 hours on my seventeenth birthday (my father refusing to lie for me when I tried a year earlier). Even though I was issued the WWII Victory Medal, I would be stretching things if I were to consider myself a real WWII veteran. I am not worthy of those who are. These men and woman who served during the fighting remain heroes to me and I direct praise to them. While some are still here, I encourage our final attention to them. And to them I say, “Thank you.”
When we returned home after the Korean War (“conflict”/“police action”), we were simply ignored. This did not much bother us, because we did not know that we had accomplished much. (We certainly did notice whatever welcome-home was there was nothing like 1945-1947.) I was in the army by then, and I was in the army through the Vietnam period.
Although ignored after Korea, we would have preferred being ignored to how we were in fact treated before, during, and after Vietnam. We were maligned, cursed and spit upon. As an army chaplain, my solemn duty — and profound honor — was to deliver multiple KIA notices to parents, wives, siblings and children. I buried thirty others. I had to be escorted through protesters to get into funeral homes. I sat for hours at hospital beds and tried to help them put their young lives back together. I tried to comfort and encourage families who received back a different man than they had sent off. I had to pick up the mother who had been phoned by a war protester with a fake KIA notice. I had to calm the young widow who was confronted on the street with, “I’m glad your husband was killed! He deserved to die!”
My younger son followed my example and enlisted in the Minnesota National Guard at age 17. Upon graduation from ROTC, I swore him into the Regular Army and pinned my old gold bars on his shoulders. We saw him off to the first Gulf War, and I wondered how I would bear it if a KIA notice would be delivered to us. (Ironically, I suppose, I was the senior chaplain at Arlington National Cemetery.) He fought as a tank platoon leader, and he did come home to us. He rose to major and is now himself a veteran.
I was forced, by law, to retire on my sixtieth birthday in the rank of colonel, so that my service spanned 43 years. Although most were in the reserve, I had a decade of active duty. I am a different person because I did, and I received more than I ever gave.
What our son and his colleagues did failed to put down for long the evil forces in the near east, and we went to war again. It has been the longest war yet and a very different kind of war. I examine the highly technical equipment and weaponry these men — and now women — have mastered and I listen to them narrate their terrible combat experiences. Because of astounding medical intervention, many who would have been killed in my wars now live. But no one should have to live the lives too many of them now do. So do their families.
And here am I safely on the shelf. If I admire any soldiers more than the WWII veterans, it is these kids of today’s armed forces.
Not having qualified for the praise of WWII, having been ignored after Korea, and despised during Vietnam, a strange thing is happening these days. When today’s soldiers learn I am a veteran, as they will be soon, to a soldier they become serious and say, “Sir, thank you for your service.”