Thank you for your service

Country Roads

When I was a small boy there was a middle aged man in our community who suffered from an obvious and unusual physical affliction. I remember asking my father about the man and Dad explained he was injured in a gas attack during the First World War.

That discussion is one of my first memories of the subject of war and I remember thinking war must be horrible. As I grew older I learned about the horrors of World War II and the Korean conflict. Vietnam brought the reality of war to my generation. Now we have been militarily involved in the Middle East for nearly three decades.

When the county draft board sent me to Fort Des Moines for a draft physical in 1968, I was rejected because of bad knees and what the Army doctor called “potato poisoning.” That was his nice way of saying I was overweight.

Though I did not serve in the military I was raised to respect the men and women who did. My father and several of my maternal uncles were veterans of World War II.

Wars don’t stop when the fighting ends. The last time I visited my maternal grandmother nearly 40 years ago she cried again over the war. Five of her seven sons served Uncle Sam but only four came home. Uncle Arnold died in the invasion of Sicily. Nearly four decades after the fact, Oma blamed the war not only for the loss of Arnold but for the health problems of her surviving sons and sons-in-law. “Dat verdammt Krieg,” (“That damned war,”) Oma sobbed.

Oma kept a scrapbook during World War II and among her keepsakes were letters she received from her soldier sons. As I read those letters a number of years ago I realized anew the war was not won by the John Wayne machismo we saw in movies from that era but rather by unpretentious, courageous young men and women who wanted desperately to complete the job so they could return to their families and sweethearts.

Uncle Arnold reminisced in his letters about his mothers’ delicious cooking and family and friends. He included in every letter a special greeting to his little sisters. I was deeply moved as I read his letters and began to understand how homesick he must have been.

In the early ’90s, during the 50th anniversary of World War II, our newspaper regularly published articles about significant events in that war. Frequently, an article jogged the memory of a local World War II veteran who visited my office to share the memory. I suspect that on at least a few occasions it was the first time that veteran had shared those memories with anyone.

Some of the memories shared were humorous but most were serious. Some were obviously painful. I was honored to have the opportunity to listen and when those memories generated tears, I often found myself weeping along with the veteran.

Veterans Day is Sunday, Nov. 11. This year we will observe the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Armistice on November 11, 1918, bringing World War I to an end. The last living veteran of World War I died in 2012.

Sixteen million Americans fought in World War II, but fewer than 1,000,000 are still alive. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reports that an average of 362 of those veterans are dying every day.

Only about 2,000,000 of the Americans who served in the Korean War are still alive. Officials claim we are losing about 400 veterans from the Viet Nam war every day including from suicide and from the effects of Agent Orange.

Suicide among our younger veterans is epidemic. According to VA data, more than 6,000 veterans have killed themselves each year since 2008.

Wars don’t stop when the fighting ends. Our veterans need our support.

Some people say we no longer have real heroes in America. I disagree. My dictionary says a hero is a person noted for feats of courage or nobility of purpose, especially one who has risked or sacrificed his or her life. That describes our veterans.

It is proper to express gratitude at any time of the year but as Veterans Day approaches it is even more fitting to say to each of our veterans, “Thank you for your service!”