Veterans find bonds globally

Published 10:19 am Monday, November 8, 2010

A terrible battle was fought in April 1915 when British troops (including Australians and New Zealanders) attempted to invade the Gallipoli peninsula of what is now Turkey and were repulsed by the Ottomans. The invasion cost nearly half a million casualties. Although the Allies (including America) eventually won World War I, the Turks of the Ottoman Empire won this battle. In this costly conflict, the entire 57th Ottoman Regiment was killed—down to the last man.

A few months ago I toured this battlefield and stood in awe before a monument addressed to the British: Those heroes that shed their blood / and lost their lives…/ You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. /Therefore rest in peace, / There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets [a common Turkish name, the equivalent of “Johnny”] / to us where they lie side by side / here in this country of ours…/ You, the mothers, / who sent their sons from far away countries, / wipe away your tears; / your sons are now lying in our bosom / and are in peace. / After having lost their lives on this land / they have become our sons as well.

Although I had long ago read this quoted, I shook my head to get straight who was speaking to whom.

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Mustafa Kemal Ataturk wrote these words in 1934 on the nineteenth anniversary of the British attempt to invade his country. At the time he was a regimental commander in the Ottoman army in this battle but just ten years later became the first president of the Republic of Turkey, having won its independence from the Ottoman empire. Here, then, is the enemy seeking to comfort the mothers of his enemy. It is the enemy adopting dead sons because they died in his country and despite their having attacked his country.

This mutual respect —even affection — actually began during the battle. As it wore on indecisively, soldiers on both sides tired of fighting and sensed the futility of it all. One old Ottoman batman dared to hang his platoon’s laundry on the barbed wire that defined sides. The Brits found this amusing and each day watched for him to appear with another load—but not a shot was ever fired at him. There was “constant traffic” of gifts thrown across no-man’s land. The Turks sent dates and sweets; the Brits cans of beef and cigarettes.

I think of these astounding attitudes on this Veterans Day. Being a military veteran, several times over, I understand. Something happens to a man or a women because we are veterans. We wear different and distinctive uniforms, but there is uniformity among us. They are really the same uniform.

As an army chaplain, I have conducted funerals for war dead where I knew neither the deceased nor anyone else. When the escort officer and the honor guard saw me arrive, their look of greeting said, Oh good, the chaplain (our chaplain) is here. And many times they were of another branch of the armed forces. No matter; we understood each other. The families never wondered why this stranger should perform the ceremony. I was no longer a stranger.

This sense of comradery, however, is not confined to American armed forces. As with the Turks compassion for the British invaders, I have observed and actually experienced this same oneness with soldiers and veterans of other armed forces. Even in Turkey.

As we entered the war museum in Istanbul, I identified myself to the captain of the guard as a retired American army colonel. With great ceremony and pride, he escorted me past the admission booth and said our visit would be complimentary. He brought himself to attention and saluted smartly.

Yes, something happens to men and women when they learn they are together military veterans. Yet, this isn’t confined to the almost amusing forgetfulness of former different branches among Americans, because it becomes a trans-national sentiment. Again, not just among various militaries of the Allies. It exists among veterans of opposing armies — soldiers who were enemies, who once tried to kill each other.

Being veterans of military service binds us together; it bonds us. In a serious sense, ordinary soldiers fashion a peace more real than the tenuous treaties of the diplomats.