Veterans Day is Saturday of this week.
For many, it will be just another fall Saturday to watch college football, deal with weekend chores, or relax. In this commentary, I want to share two stories that I hope will help reinforce why we observe this holiday.
In his book The Greatest Generation, Tom Brokaw writes about Americans who grew up during the Great Depression and went on to serve America during World War II. Brokaw wrote “It is, I believe, the greatest generation any society has ever produced.” He based that on his conclusion that ordinary Americans served not expecting fame and recognition, but because it was the “right thing to do.”
The stories I share are about two military veterans with different World War II experiences, but who meet Brokaw’s criteria for recognition as members of the greatest generation. Both veterans are now deceased, but they remind us there was a time in America when doing the right thing was a given and not a rarity.
The first story is from a friend’s experience while attending a funeral for a World War II veteran, long after that veteran had served. At the funeral, the spouse of the deceased approached my friend and asked if he could explain an item in her hand. He looked at it and immediately said “This is a Silver Star. It is the United States military’s third-highest decoration for valor and gallantry in combat.” His widow stood quietly for a minute and then said “We were married for 62 years. Until his last day, we talked about everything. Except for this. He never told me about it. I found it in his dresser. I had no idea what it is or where it came from.” Like so many others in Brokaw’s book, her husband served in the military, not expecting fame and recognition, but because it was the “right thing to do.”
My second story is closer to home.
During World War II, my father left his parents, his four sisters and his job to serve as a co – pilot of a B-24 Liberator. My father only talked to me once about his experiences. It happened after I asked him about a small piece of metal (not a medal) on his dresser. He told me it was a piece of his plane that he saved after a crash landing in France. When I asked for more details, he said simply, “It wasn’t a big deal. He went on to say, “We ran out of fuel flying back to England from a mission over Germany, probably because the ground crew did not fill our fuel tanks before we took off.” Only after he died did one of his crewmates tell me the full story. Their plane ran out of fuel because they were desperately taking evasive action to avoid being shot down by ground based anti-aircraft guns.
After his passing, I read his handwritten mission diary. What he and his crew did was a very big deal. They flew twenty-five combat missions. In every mission, they endured long flights and coped with the constant stress over the possibility of being wounded, killed, or captured and held as a prisoner of war.
After the war ended, he returned home to resume his civilian career in banking, get married, and start a family. He too, served America not expecting fame and recognition, but because it was the “right thing to do.”
Sharing these stories about two veterans of a long-ago war is not meant to minimize my gratitude, admiration, and respect for all who served in the military post-World War II. On every Veterans Day we need to say thank you to every American military veteran, regardless of when, where, and how they served.
That said, we especially need to give a special thank you to the World War II veterans who are still with us. Estimates are that of the sixteen million veterans who served during World War II less than 120,000 are still alive; and that number is dwindling rapidly. While their service should never be forgotten we still need to do all we can to express our gratitude before they are gone forever.
David Reel is a public affairs/public relations consultant who serves as a trusted advisor on strategy, advocacy, and media matters who lives in Easton.