Hoping that the Present Generation of Veterans Gets the Same Kind of Respect We Give the Greatest Generation

Dad in WW2

Right now that hope is a little dim, given that the wars we have now are coming to a close (if we can call it that) with more of a whimper than a VE Day/VJ Day bang.

NPR ran a touching story on Honor Flight New England, an organization that offers free trips to DC for WW II vets so they can visit the monuments to their service. One surviving vet said, though long-held tears, that in all the years since he came home he thought of his service as a waste – he buried those memories and never spoke about it. On this trip, however, he said he finally understood that his service meant something and, knowing how grateful people are for his service,  he would do it again ten times over. A number of people said that the veterans in their family never spoke of the war or showed any interest in war movies or documentaries. That came as somewhat of a relief to me because my father only spoke of his service in the Pacific the war in small details, although he watched every episode of The World at War and read every book it though the years. He was so pleased when his war buddy came to town – a towering man named Jim who, in uniform as I recall, would delight us with his strength by tearing a phone book in half.

Dad would pull out the atlas and show me the places with exotic names in the Philipines where he was a harbor pilot. I was very young when we did this together – we made a game out of my mispronunciation of Catbalogan – and it seemed to me then that he felt kind of lucky to be an Iowa boy navigating the ocean on big ships. I once asked him why he didn’t drink coffee and he said “I had a lifetime’s worth of coffee in the war.” That’s as much as I ever recall hearing about life on a Navy ship. After he died in 1992, I read his letters home to his mother and they seemed to chronicle the times in ways that were unremarkable. In the few photos I have of him, he is smiling. Some people interpret this as him blocking out the mean experiences of war – that there were stories too terrible to be told. I really don’t know.

What strikes me now is that in the age of instant global communication, we are not under any illusion about what our soldiers are facing overseas. They do not have the luxury, if you can a call it that, of burying the atrocities of war when they come home. It’s on TV, the internet and at the movies. The Greatest Generation had On the Town, South Pacific and From Here to Eternity – our guys have PlatoonThe Hurt Locker, and Jarhead. I suspect there won’t be a musical about Afghanistan any time soon.

We are losing more soldiers to suicide at home than we are  on deployment. It’s hard to know what to do to help, although we should make sure vets get the mental health services they need and their benefits on time, neither of which is happening now. In the meantime, I hope that, unlike some of the men in the NPR story, today’s servicemen and women don’t have to wait 60 years to hear their fellow citizens say “thank you.”

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Thank you.

More than Veterans

Mom with Lou Friend and Bob Hogan 1943

Last week I wrote about my father’s Navy service (see Overseas) and so today a moment to honor not simply service to our country but the many ways it shaped and created countless lives.  World War II created social structures (our mother with friends at right) and set the stage for a generation that would truly change the world.  A kiss to those who served, and to those who love them.

Here is a link to a new, beautiful song by Mark Knopfler (of Dire Straits fame) to commemorate Armistice Day.

Overseas

Dad in WW2

This is our mother’s favorite photograph of our father. She kept it under the glass on her dresser, along with dozens of other photos of her children and grandchildren.  The dresser was several feet long, allowing enough surface area for a single column of photographs depicting each child from infancy to adulthood.  The picture of Dad was in the upper right hand corner and must have been covered by a jewelry box or a lamp, because I don’t recall ever seeing it until she carefully removed it from under the glass to give to me shortly after my father died in 1992.

He is sitting near a beach in a tee shirt, his sloping shoulders, relaxing tanned arms down to hands resting on khaki-clad knees.  He seems happy.  From a distance it is not clear whether he is looking at the camera, and one might surmise that he is looking off in the distance.  But upon closer inspection it is clear that his shadowed eyes fixed on the lens, and that makes his smile seem a little more self conscious, more guarded, but upbeat nonetheless.  It was wartime in the Phillipines, after all. 

A few years back Steven Soderbergh directed a film set in World War II (The Good German) which he shot using only cameras, lenses and lighting that were available in 1946.  Soderbergh, spoke in the Times about the use of direct incandescent lighting and the unique, noir-ish quality of the shadows that type of lighting and lens created.  This photograph evokes that style, with deep shadows and warm whites depicting men in manly poses wearing simple, military issue clothing.  The ocean waves behind them provide the only patterns.

Who took the photograph and the identity of the man on the left remains a mystery; my mother didn’t know either, which I find particularly odd.  But it suits his overall story, I suppose, for he was a man with many friends, many stories and a selective memory.  Born and bred in the landlocked Midwest, he left his college career and enlisted in the Navy after Pearl Harbor, and shipped off first to Philadelphia and then to Manila.  I surmise that one of the reasons my mother loved this particular photo is that, besides showing him as he was when they first met, it captures on his face his love of the sea, his joy and satisfaction at being part of something big in a place an Iowa man would never expect to find himself.

But for all of his stories, and his gift for telling them, his war years remained largely a mystery, at least to me.  He watched every WWII documentary, read every book about it, but the only details he shared with us were with maps, showing us the islands he went to, and sometimes the kinds of ships he guided as a harbor pilot.  Some of my siblings, in search of an explanation for the years that followed, theorized that that happened in the war drove him to drink later in his life.  When he lay dying, one of them plucked up all of his courage to ask what happened in the war, what sort of injustices led him to the bottle.  The answer was wholly unsatisfactory.  That was just who he was, he said; there wasn’t a reason, no deep dark secret.  He drank because he liked to, needed to, and he stopped drinking when it stopped helping.  It sounds so simple, so unarguable, when put in those terms.  Even so, there are those that believe he simply was not willing or able to talk about all of his war experiences.   So all we have is the photo hidden in plain sight until it was too late to find out the story behind it.

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