*Johnstown, PA Tribune-Democrat
November 11, 2010
as "Remember to Thank a Veteran Today"
Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey
But the freedom that they fought for,
and the country grand they wrought for,
Is their monument to-day.
~Thomas Dunn English
I see him on the sidewalk, his gait slow and uneven. His back is bent; his hands gnarled by arthritis and time. His face is wrinkled, the nose veined and crooked. But on his head he wears with great pride a blue ballcap. Emblazoned in gold on the front are the words, “U.S. Navy Veteran.”
I see him on his motorcycle. His beard, once richly black, is streaked with grey, as is the longish hair on the back of his head. He doesn’t say much, but in his eyes, I see the memories; days and places, faces and names. He, too wears a ballcap. Along with the globe-and-anchor of the Marine Corps are the words, “Vietnam Veteran.”
A young man jogs past, finishing his run. From the perspective of my years, he’s just a kid. His muscles are taut, his face smooth and unlined under the short-cropped hair. As I pass by, our eyes meet. Young though his body may be, his eyes have seen far too much for his years. As he strips off his sweatshirt, I understand. On his green t-shirt are the words, “3rd Infantry Division. Iraq.”
They walk among us every day, the old and grizzled, the young and quiet. They are mostly invisible to us, except for those ballcaps. Yet, our country is safe and our freedoms are intact because of them.
Once, they were young and tough, seeking adventure as only a young man will. With the story of those lives as yet unwritten, they left home, family, friends, all the familiar trappings of childhood. They donned a uniform, picked up the flag, and served. In strange lands, crouching behind stone walls, stalking through snow-filled forests, on the crest of great oceans, and brutally hot deserts they shared a common experience: coming face-to-face with their own mortality. Bullets flew within inches of their heads, and explosions stunned their ears. As they watched their friends fall, they struggled to control their own fear. Life was reduced to a simple equation: Either the enemy dies, or I do.
Argentine journalist Jose Narosky wrote, “In war, there are no unwounded soldiers.” Combat changes a human, a mark seared forever onto the soul. They talk about their experiences rarely, if at all. Part of that is because of the raw and painful memories. The other part… as one combat veteran said to me, “I can’t talk to you about war. If you’ve never been there, you’ll never understand.”
And yet, they went willingly. Many returned to combat willingly, because deep within them lives an unbreakable sense of duty and honor. And the understanding that what we have here in America is manifestly worth defending.
November 11th was set aside, originally by Woodrow Wilson, as a day to honor those who served in World War I. Over time, it changed from Armistice Day to Veteran’s Day. On that day, we honor those who served our country, as well as the ideals of freedom and liberty they fought for throughout the world.
It is hard to thank them, because most shrug it off, saying, “Just doin’ my job.” But serving the United States at the risk of one’s life is not merely a job. It is a calling; one answered by those few, those proud…those with stout hearts.
Hopefully, you will see a veteran on November 11th, somewhat bashfully wearing a ballcap or a sweatshirt. Or maybe you know someone who served. Thank them. They may shake it off, but don’t feel offended or embarrassed. You must remember that to them, they aren’t heroes.
Their heroes are the ones who didn’t come home.
America is both a place and an ideal, born of courage, vision, and sacrifice. America lives today because so many of her young men and women willingly gave “the last full measure of devotion.”
This Veteran’s Day, take the time and effort to thank the veterans who are still around.
Then say a prayer and ask God to thank the rest.