As Veterans Day approaches, our hearts go out to the families of soldiers serving at war a world away from the warm safety of their homes and arms of loved ones. Our thoughts are also drawn to the sacrifices of the families who remain at home, waiting on their safe return.
As we take the day to show our respects to veterans, whether it be something as small as thanking a veteran for their service to attending a memorial ceremony, or something as large as sponsoring a veteran through the Wounded Warrior Project, making someone feel the respect they deserve is all that matters.
I come from a long line of military servants, from my dad and brothers in the Army to my grandfather who fought and was injured in World War II. I am no stranger to the stories of warfare, some humorous, and some serious and scary. Many veterans take the day as a day to reflect, not only upon the struggles that led them to where they are today, but also on the brotherhood and camaraderie they experienced during their military service.
While I am the granddaughter of a World War II Navy Veteran, his service was not something he discussed easily. I learned many of his stories in bits and pieces. I never got much insight into whether his traits, being prideful and extremely thrifty, came from his military experience. One thing I did learn was that men, like my grandfather who served in the military, are filled with a pride that is unparalleled by anyone I have met.
Grandpa, who was injured terribly while serving overseas during the worst parts of World War II, did tell of learning of his mother's death back in West Virginia through a letter, months after she was gone. This was something he felt terrible about for the rest of his life, since he actually ran away from home to join the Navy at the age of 17 - after forging his mother's name to his Navy paperwork. I am certain, at that time, officials were not too concerned with the legitimacy of handwriting and probably never even questioned the signature.
Grandpa also told of the Navy not having enough rifles for new recruits and being trained with 2x4 wooden boards. One of my most treasured possessions is the Bible he carried with him next to his heart. Included within the pages is a two dollar bill from his first military paycheck, back in 1942. He told me how new recruits were given a metal covered small Bible that would fit in their chest pocket. They were handed out after his Sergeant said that 50 to 60 percent of the men leaving would be carried back home in body bags. The Bible's metal cover was made with the intention of saving a soldier's life ,if they were shot near the heart. Grandpa even told of one occasion where he was narrowly missed by gunfire, before the eventual gunshot wounds and broken back he suffered in what he referred to as "Operation Watchtower."
Although grandpa never spoke of many of the battles he was in, he did tell of the atrocious return trip home, after suffering his injuries. The groaning sounds of dying and severely injured men on their way to the naval hospital in the states was something he never forgot, and spoke of many times over the years. He never talked of valor, only that serving his country was a job that he did, and he was paid to do so. The only thing I know of his job was that he was a radio operator, as it was rare he spoke of his service and I respected his privacy. The things he did tell, I soaked up like a sponge.
Just a year before his death in 2010, I set out to get him the Purple Heart that I had determined he definitely deserved. As I approached him about the award, he was nearly angry. I needed his discharge papers and other information to apply for him, so it wasn't as if I could do it secretly. I tried to explain how much the Purple Heart and other awards he was due meant. His simple reply was, "They are just things, and things don't change anything." I learned that the records of many World War II veterans were destroyed in a fire in a St. Louis warehouse.
After his death in 2010, I felt at peace with my decision not to move forward with my plans to have him honored post mortem. After all, what glory comes from something that has no value to the person being honored? I just know that, as I sit through each veterans service, my heart and mind always goes back to all the families of veterans currently serving and, as I look at many of those aging men who show up - veterans from every war, I am always forced to think of the brutal reality of war, shown so vividly in the movie, "We Were Soldiers."
My heart breaks for those veterans who have lost their families and are forced to live in nursing homes or alone, with only the memories of their service and, for that small time frame in their lives, proudly remembering they were a part of something big, something important, America's military. So I ask each of you to not only think of what you can do for a veteran this Veteran's Day, I ask you to take it a step further and act upon it.
A few things individuals can do to show how much they care about veterans include something as simple as listening. By taking a few moments to listen to the story of a veteran, you show interest in their experience in serving, the inspiration that carried them through the darkest nights, or the trials they endured during their transition to civilian life. Veterans always seem to respect signs of patriotism, such as proudly flying American flags. But pats on the back or kind words, taking time to talk to them means far more. Although talking does not bring back anything they may have lost in a war, either physical or emotional, patriotism goes much further through the show of concern and passion.
I recall dating a Marine who served during some rough times in Libya in 1986. As his letters poured in, I tried to write kind words of encouragement, I did not know the impact of those letters until years later, when I was told that they were what pulled him through trying times during his deployment.
As I sit through Veteran's Day services each year, chills run down my back and tears always manage to wet my cheek, as "Taps" rings out its lonely sounds, ending the day of remembrance for yet another year. But with that tear is a great sense of pride and passion for those who valiantly serve this country we all call home.