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.

Memorial Day – Heaven is a Place on Earth

 

I like the way that Memorial Day follows the holiday tradition of ceremony followed by food.  Parades and visits to the cemetery lead into celebration of those who have left us with those who remain.  And for those separated by long distance there is the ongoing shared memory of everyone who is not with us, in heaven and on earth.  I remember my father by raising the flag, and my mother by making potato salad.  I did both of these things when they were alive and so doing them now makes that process more joyful and less bittersweet. 

Coming at the end of May, Memorial Day is as much about the promise of the burgeoning summer as anything, and this year the weather could not be more perfect – cool nights and blue mornings bring legions of peonies and irises into bloom, and friends gather at the in the dusk after an idyllic day in the sun and shade.  In a world rife with trouble and uncertainty, this weekend is a bubble I can cherish.

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