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November 11, 2010
Veterans Day, 2010
Looking back brings to me a lot of powerful, moving thoughts about this day:
The facts are simple enough. November 11 is Veterans Day. The day when those of us who have served in America's military think back to what it meant to us. We are grateful for the opportunity.
There have been 11 wars beginning with the American Revolution. In these conflicts from our founding to today's news reports, a total of 42 million Americans have wartime service in our military..
Of this total, 650,000 died in battle.
Another 309,000 died from other causes in the theatres where they served..
Today we have almost 17.5 million living American veterans of wartime service, about 5.5% of our total population.
So if you know someone who has served in any branch of the service, wartime or peacetime, or both, this is the day to shake his or her hand and to say "Thank you for what you did for us. We are grateful for your devotion to duty and to our country."
The wars have come and gone.
Whether we were drafted or we enlisted, we went to our duty and served the country we loved.
Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, Coast Guard
Those who served in these forces came from all over the country.
We got our training from stern men who never smiled.
We pushed ourselves harder than we ever had previously.
And when the "PT" or Physical Training was over, we knew things were just beginning. Training is only a first step. What lies ahead? It may be distant countries with strange names. Combat, danger, and sometimes long periods of empty days and nights.
Drill and duty. Duty and Drill. And days that drag on again and again. Does anything brighten or lighten this heavy mood?
A letter from home. From, Mom, from Dad, from the girl you dated, from a sister or brother. They care. They love you.
They worry about you.
And we think about the realities of combat. Will we ever face it? How will we handle it?
It will be adrenalin pumping. Our hearts racing. Enemy fire incoming. Take cover! There may be fear but it's under control. No sense of alarm. Just the business of war.
It will probably be like training again. Only it's never more serious than this. And the price of failure is the most it can be to any military man.
And that's OK.
The Korean War was never supposed to happen. World War II was over. We had won. We had the new organization -- the United Nations. No reason for anyone to go to war again. Every problem would be solved with negotiations.
But, somehow it happened. Korea was the place. They had unusual names for this war. It was a "Proxy War." America was fighting against the Communist Chinese and the Soviets who supported them. We all were "proxies" for the two countries actually involved, North and South Korea.
That didn't make it much better. People were still getting killed. Families were grieving over the loss of wonderful young men who hadn't had the chance to live their lives.
I was 20 when I was drafted. I had been studying at Case Institute of Technology in Cleveland, Ohio, working to become an engineer. Then my father became very ill. I had to quit school and go to work full time. My mother and I were the only sources of family income.
Happily I met on a blind date a wonderful woman. She was from Detroit. We were two totally unmatched people. It was a case of the Geek and the Beauty Queen. No question which one I was.
A few months later we married. And on the day of our wedding, the Selective Service made out my draft notice. Just 24 days later I was off to Basic Training in Fort Knox. By then the Korean War was winding down. The truce had been signed. But all the plans we had made for our married years, the next phase of our lives, were out the window. The next two years were spoken for.
But.... It was for our country. Time for Drill and Duty. Happily the Beauty Queen joined me when I got a permanent duty station. There still were concerns. Her brother had been killed in Korea. There's always the possibility of another family member meeting the same fate. A machine gunner, he gave his life holding off attacking Chinese so his units could escape. We both wept when we were home again and we read his citation for his Medal of Honor. The words had gained new meaning.
And then came Viet Nam. A strange war in many ways. Intense, but shifting political pressures and anti-war sentiment so strong, it led to many Americans bitterly condemning those who wore the uniform, as though they had made the choices and strategic plans.
Strange that in all of this, I experienced one of the most moving examples of deep devotion to those who wear the uniform. Fifty years later it still lives in my memory.
I was on a bus riding home from work. Nearly at my stop, I looked out the window at what was an amazing sight. The street we were passing had a large number of American flags flying in the breeze on the afternoon of a bright sunny day. And it was the only street where I'd seen this.
I wondered what it was all about. I knew of no special day or occasion that would explain it.
When I got to my stop, I turned and walked back to the flag-bedecked street. This was a middle-class residential area of Lakewood, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland. Neat houses, even if not particularly large. Nicely manicured lawns.
Walking down the street, the flags were flying as far as I could see. I was really curious now. After a few more minutes of walking, I saw a man sitting on his porch.
I asked him what the occasion was.
He said, "Oh, this is for Buddy. Do you live around here?"
"Yes, I live on the next street over. I stopped because I saw all the flags. All the way out here, it's the only street where I've seen them."
The man smiled. "Well, Buddy was a wonderful young man. Always helping out others. A good athlete in high school. He joined the Army last year. And then, he was killed. Someplace I never heard of. They brought his body back for burial. It's tomorrow. So all of us got the idea that we'd fly the American flag today and tomorrow in his honor. Got everybody on the street to join in. Really looks wonderful, doesn't it?"
It was a powerful moment. Despite all the prevailing criticism, attacks, hostility and anger engendered by this war, this is what these neighbors of Buddy thought to do to honor him. When I went home, I told my wife what had happened. I wrote the story along with the details of Buddy's life that the neighbor had told me.
The local paper published it, and a Cleveland Daily picked it up. I later sent it to the Reader's Digest, and it was published there.
I received many letters and notes about that day. Somehow, the impact is still always there. A reminder of what citizens of our country can feel about those who wear the uniform.
Happy Veteran's Day!