The Vacant Chair: Thoughts on Veteran’s Day

Mine was one who came home.

Veteran’s Day is upon us again and, the more I think about it, the more I think it’s one of our more bittersweet holidays.  We honor those who came home.  We serve them free lunch at restaurants, we offer them discounts at chain hotels.  And, we remember those who didn’t come home.

In early 2003, not terribly long before the war in Iraq began, The Hubs was deployed to Kosovo.  Kosovo, at that time, was the third most dangerous theater of operations for US Troops (Afghanistan was number one, Korea number two.  When the Iraq war started, Kosovo was bumped down to fourth).  The Hubs was part of an engineer unit: he drove up-armor HMMVs.  He learned to drive an M1 Abrams tank, to help him learn how to canvas for landmines.

About three months ago, I finally asked him if he had been afraid.  He told me he was most scared when he first got into the country; when they were learning their jobs, when they were getting used to always carrying M16s and always wearing their Kevlar anytime they were outside.  He told me how he always sat on a Kevlar jacket when he was out on patrol: in the event they hit a mine, the Kevlar would help protect them.  Blackhawks and Apaches, tanks, up-armors until they were taken away and sent to Iraq, translators, Serbians, Albanians, mines; he came home two weeks short of one year after he left.

It took us ten years to have that conversation.

My generation’s war is different from my parent’s generation.  My dad’s number was never called for the draft to Vietnam–he chose to enlist when he was in his late twenties.  The Hubs enlisted when he was seventeen.  Just as wars have changed, our compassion to our veterans have changed: long past the dark days of post-Vietnam “baby killers,” we now view our returning soldiers as we always should have: heroes.

In J. Jacob Oswandel Notes of the Mexican War, 1848-47-48, the author describes a unit of soldiers who had come to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and spent time on the streets of town, ending up carousing with some factory girls.  The girls, being girls, reportedly fell in love with the soldiers.  One soldier quipped:

I thought it was a bad time to fall in love with the soldiers now, for remember Johnny is enlisted for the war with Mexico, and God knows whether he will live to return to his love.

On Veteran’s Day, there are those who came home.  There are those who didn’t; those who left behind Gold Star Mothers, the widows, the orphans.  There are those who survived the horrors of battle, but “drowned in the aftermath”–soldiers who struggle with PTSD and continue to fight their battles long after the guns fall silent.  There are those who fought but whose names we’ll never know, such as those buried in unmarked graves in Gettysburg’s National Cemetery.  I’ll be holding my veteran a little tighter and thanking him for his service, just as I’ll be thinking of those who have also served: my dad, both my grandpas, my father-in-law and brother-in-law and countless cousins and friends.  We shouldn’t just be thanking our veterans one day a year–we should honor their service every day.  Every year.

One hundred and fifty years ago this month, Abraham Lincoln gave “a few appropriate remarks” to dedicate the National Cemetery in Gettysburg.  From Gettysburg, to Flanders Fields, to Omaha Beach, to Hamburger Hill, to Pusan and Inchon, to Kosovo and Iraq and Afghanistan: all gave some.  Some gave all.  And we remember them.

The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have  consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will  little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what  they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the  unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It  is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us —  that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for  which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve  that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall  have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people,  for the people, shall not perish from the earth.


1 Comment

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