A Tribute to our Veterans
Veterans’ Day originally started as a commemoration of the Armistice that ended World War One on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918. We have expanded that remembrance to all who have served and fought in our wars.
To understand the real meaning of that remembrance we ought to try to consider who veterans are and why they are different that those in the civilian population.
This quotation from CS Lewis so acutely describes the military experience.
“All that we fear from all the kinds of adversity, severally, is collected together in the life of a soldier on active service. Like sickness, it threatens pain and death. Like poverty, it threatens ill lodging, cold, heat, thirst, and hunger. Like slavery, it threatens toil, humiliation, injustice, and arbitrary rule. Like exile, it separates you from all you love. Like the gallies, it imprisons you at close quarters with uncongenial companions. It threatens every temporal evil-every evil except dishonor and final perdition…”
For our service men and women, their time in the military is probably the seminal event in their life. It marks who they are and what they become. Quite literally, they are forged into soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines as a consequence of that experience. Basic Training is a process that has been honed over literally thousands of years. It is designed to break the individual down, that person who is focused on their own well-being. At some point, they realize that they can’t do it alone. They have to begin relying on their comrades. From that point they are “forged” into a cohesive unit where the whole is far greater than the sum of the parts.
The military lives by a different Code. They live in an environment of “Unlimited Liability.” If they fail in their duty, they don’t lose their job or file for bankruptcy …They lose everything… including their lives and the lives of those around them.
As a consequence, they develop an intimacy of relationships that cannot be fathomed by those who have not experienced it. How do you describe the love of another person so great that you would sacrifice your life for them…without even thinking about it (and they for you).
How many people would sign up for that deal? And yet we have brave souls that did…and they continue to do so yet.
Philosopher John Stuart Mill summed it up well,
“War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.”
We honor those who have given those exertions. They raised their right hand and said, “I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies….”
In doing so they reaffirmed what our founding fathers stated when they signed the Declaration of Independence. They pledged to each other and the citizens of our Great County their lives and sacred honor.
Yes, they pledged their lives…and all the dreams, hopes and aspirations they had for their future. They were willing to lay all that aside – all that they could be – for us!
Thirty years ago, I commanded an Armored Cavalry Troop in Europe. We patrolled the border with East Germany. It was a sobering experience and it brought me face to face with evil.
Looking across a border, strung with multiple fences topped with razor-wire, interspersed with a plowed “dead zone” and minefields, it was not hard to understand that something was desperately wrong with their system. The fence wasn’t designed to keep us out; it was meant to keep their own people in. Yet, the draw of freedom was strong enough to motivate people to risk their lives to escape that oppression.
During the Cold War, hundreds of thousands of American military personnel stood as a trip-wire to what at the time seemed like a very real possibility that Soviet forces would invade the West. We had been to the precipice before during the Cuban Missile Crisis. For decades, we guarded the frontier. In fact, I commanded the same border camp my father did three decades before.
In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. At that time, I was stationed thousands of miles away. As the Soviet Empire collapsed and the East Bloc countries broke free, a new spirit emerged. I could not help but feel we had won the war.
I had a son on the way and I believed that he would grow up in as safer world. Their generation deserved more and my generation’s efforts had made that a reality. I have sadly come to find that it was a naïve notion.
Within two years, we were at war with an Iraqi tyrant in Kuwait. The “New World Order” devolved into chaos. One crisis after another marched across the globe. From the Balkans to Somalia, malevolence was resurgent.
So it is with each generation.
Our returning “doughboys” from the Great War must have thought they had beaten back the savages. Theirs was the war to end all wars. It did not.
In just over two decades, Hitler had brought the free world to its knees. Pearl Harbor reminded us the enemy was literally at our shores. It took the “Greatest Generation” to restore stability. Surely, they must have thought that their sacrifices had truly made the world safe for democracy. It did not.
The attacks of 9/11 reminded us that the barbarians are always at the gate. We sent our soldiers back out to the fringes of the empire in Afghanistan and Iraq to protect our civilization.
Many of those who have fought in our current wars have been deployed multiple times, away from their families and loved ones. I know something of that feeling. After one training deployment of almost two months, my sixteen month old son did not recognize this filthy guy dressed in green battle dress. He turned away, crying to his mother. It broke my heart.
I can only imagine the impact these longer deployments, with the concurrent trauma these soldiers endured in combat, have had.
The aphorism that war is “months of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror” manifests itself as periods of hyper-awareness and “adrenaline rush” followed by an emotional crash when an operation is over. Cycle that over and over during a period of combat deployment. Does that sound like it might affect their mental health?
Do we really wonder why our soldiers come home very different than when they left? They carry memories they may wish to forget but cannot. Often, these are experiences that only another soldier can understand.
At least the active duty soldiers return to a military base where everyone is focused on their reintegration. They all understand the “deal” and are prepared to deal with it.
I feel even more compassion for our local Reserve and National Guard troops involved in such operations. These service men and women return to a world right here that has plodded along, more worried about who won the football game or whether they will get the latest iPhone. Many here simply cannot fathom the depth of the experiences these veterans have faced.
Now, the absolute evil that has shown its utter fury in the manifestation of the so called “Islamic State” rivals the worst that the Nazis unleashed in the last century. America is forced to lead yet another coalition to confront the threat.
The reality is there will always be evil in the world. It is a constant battle to keep it from overwhelming the civilized world. The savages will always be hammering on freedom’s door. The security of each group is dependent upon the exertions of an earlier one. The next generation will never be safe without the sacrifices of the previous.
Therein lies the lesson. Each period of calm is but a lull before the next storm. Suffering will never stop. Our guard can never be put down.
As we remember those who have fallen, this quotation from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address seems appropriate,
“…to those who 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.”
The greatest way we can honor those brave men and women who have given their lives for our freedom is to ensure that we build and promote the type of society for which they fought. It is incumbent on us to do all we can…by public service, by simply voting, and by caring enough to do something to make our home more representative of the ideals upon which our country was founded.
We should always be grateful for the blessing bestowed upon us by the sacrifices of our predecessors. Since our founding, a proud few have always stood fast against those who would do us harm. Thankfully, we still have brave men and women to stand that watch.
May God grant peace to those who have given their lives for us, watch over those who currently serve and bless those who have done so in the past.