It’s Veterans’ Day in the United States and President Obama spoke at Arlington National Cemetery, urging us not to forget the role of the military in our history and national security.
What images come to mind when we think of the military? Discipline, certainly. Row upon row of soldiers standing in formation, identical uniforms, weapons at the ready. Being rousted out of a barracks bunk before dawn to hike up mountains and drag through swamps. Drop and give me twenty. Yes, sir. No, sir. Men and women subject to all manner of verbal abuse to toughen them up for… the unthinkable.
And then the unthinkable happens and the media provide us with images of war. I think of novels like Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead and movies like “Saving Private Ryan.” I think of framed paintings of Washington crossing the Delaware and the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima. The invasion of Normandy at Omaha Beach, Pearl harbor, the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima.
And just as in the case of a nuclear blast, we are left to deal with the fallout. Gold stars in living room windows, duck-and-cover air raid drills and draft card numbers called out over the radio yield to bittersweet images of the homecoming of American heroes. The joy of a nurse and a serviceman kissing in Times Square on V-J Day, but also agent orange, limbs lost to IEDs, post-traumatic stress syndrome, homeless vets. White-gloved soldiers saluting at graveside as they remove the star-spangled banner from a coffin, fold it neatly and hand it to a grieving mother.
But mostly, I think of my father. I don’t know a lot about his military service; it’s not something he chooses to talk about much. I know he entered the Air Force as a teenager and was fortunate to escape the worst of the horrors that war serves up. It was the dawn of the 1950s, and he voluntarily joined the military rather than face the near-certainty of being drafted and shipped off to Korea. Instead, he served in southern New Jersey, at McGuire Air Force Base/Fort Dix and across the river in Delaware.
He worked on planes. The only story I remember about this is that he sometimes had to work around the clock and how one morning, after he had been at it for two days straight, he woke up on the tarmac under a plane and was shocked to realize it was the middle of the night. No one had noticed that he was still there.
Oh, and when, as kids, my sisters and I had lost something that we needed, my father would tell us that, in the military, the officers would order the soldiers to “shit one.”
My father’s commanding officer had to give him permission to get married. After which he stood by the side of the road in his uniform, stuck out his thumb and hitched a ride up to his wedding in New York.
Four years later, he had completed his military service and was able to obtain a college education on the GI bill. But for others, the story did not end as well. There are those who never made it home. And there are those who returned to their families broken in body and in spirit. Some are unemployable, others continue to live in their own private hells, unable to reintegrate into society.
So yes, we must remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice. But we have Memorial Day devoted to that. Today, on Veterans’ Day, we are called upon to reach out to the lost souls who protected us in Korea, in Vietnam, in the sands of Iraq and in the mountains of Afghanistan, and who continue to suffer long after the bombs have stopped falling, the firing of guns has ceased and everyone has gone home.
They remain among us. And now it’s our turn to give. Encourage employers to hire the vet, donate time and money to the VA hospitals and support programs for veterans in your community. Show them that their service to us has not been forgotten.
“Honoring the Veterans” on In the Write Moment – Mindy Peltier describes her visit to the Wisconsin Veterans’ Memorial.
“Thank God No Son Sonuvabitch Lives Forever” on What Happens to Us –David Groves describes the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, in which is father fought in the Korean War this month in 1950.
Sleeping Separately Won’t Kill Your Marriage – Blogger livingin4rooms tells us what it’s like to sleep in the same bed with a combat veteran who returned with a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress syndrome.