Once a year, we set aside a day and celebrate our past and present heroes. If you have never sat down and listened to the events that they have gone through, it is a great opportunity. Before long, many of the first hand accounts will be gone, dying with those who experienced it, and blown away like the sands of time.
The Veterans of WWI went through a type of war that would make a patient man crazy and create a hopelessness that would be hard to overcome. With trench warfare, very little land was gain or lost. Most of the time was spent waiting for word to be given to make the big push. Thousands of men would run across the open field just to be mowed down by the enemy. Making it through WWI would be an accomplishment, as it was a war of attrition.
In February 2011, the last WWI veteran, Frank Buckles, passed away at the age of 110. He was part of the 2.8 million that enlisted in the service between 1917 and 1918 to help fight with the Allies. With the U.S. delivering 10,000 men to France every day, the Allies were rejuvenated and pushed the tired and worn out Germans back. That was a great generation, showing compassion for the allies and helping finish a war they did not start. The stories of these men and their everyday life during the war are gone, except for the few who have shared or written down their stories.
The WWII generation is still around, but as every day passes, we get closer to losing what many call the Greatest Generation. These men were divided to fight on two separate fronts, with very different and harsh conditions. Those who fought in Europe had some luxuries. At times they were able to go to London and Paris, they were given meals from locals that saw their coming as a saving grace. They did suffer though brutal conditions, having to live in foxholes during the middle of the German winter. Those in the Pacific, found very little relief. The rain was a constant, food and water deliveries were never constant. The Japanese also fought a guerrilla warfare style that the Allies had a hard time with. They were willing to die and take out as many people as possible.
The Greatest Generation helped mold the future of the military. They did not have to take a stand after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. They could have refused to go fight and not wanted any part of it. They could have let Europe fend for themselves and remained neutral. But that Generation was different. The men and women emerged from one of the lowest points in the country’s history, The Great Depression. This generation came from homes where there was little to eat, clothes that were held together by a few strings, very little or no education, and a chip on their shoulder. Those who enlisted knew what they were getting themselves into. They wanted to train harder, be better prepared, and push themselves further than the opposition.
The Korean War was our first intervention with the United Nations. Much of the war was a stalemate, with each side trying to wear the other down and wait them out. After three years of fighting the demilitarized zone was created and the Cold War was in full swing.
After WWII the world changed, and so did the way that war was fought. Guerrilla warfare made war unpredictable. No longer would men be in a uniform, they would be dressed in civilian clothing, hiding, and waiting for the chance to strike the unsuspecting soldier. The use of chemical weapons created unexpected horrors on the unfortunate recipients.
The Vietnam War created a generation that had no place to belong. Many were drafted in at young ages, and thrown into a war where the only way to win would be complete extermination. The Guerrilla warfare tactics made it hard to figure out civilian from enemy. Those who came back were scarred from what they saw and experienced. Many were shunned by the general public, as the anti-war movement became increasingly popular. Today, many veterans still have effects from the war. Many are homeless and never fully recovered. They came back with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and years later cancer has become prevalent because of the Agent Orange chemical weapon that was used.
In the last 30 years, the Middle East has been our main priority. There is now the emergence of nuclear, long range weapons, and urban warfare. The days of mass offensives are gone. Now it is missile attacks and limited one on one engagement. In some ways this has made the war more unpredictable and scary. You never know who is for you or against you, or where the attack is coming from.
In Southwest Virginia, we have been fortunate to have an abundance of veterans. I have personally talked with people who fought on both fronts, in the air and on the sea during WWII. My uncle was in Vietnam, as were many more. Close friends and friend’s family members have served in several of the Middle East campaigns. I have worked with more than 30 service men from all different eras of peace and war time. I always enjoy hearing the stories that they share. The things that they go through that the average person would never think about.
To quote Stephen Ambrose, the author of Band of Brothers:
“They thought the Army was boring, unfeeling, and chicken, and hated it. They found combat to be ugliness, destruction, and death, and hated it. Anything was better than the blood and carnage, the grime and filth, the impossible demands made on the body—anything, that is, except letting down their buddies.
They also found in combat the closest brotherhood they ever knew. They found selflessness. They found they could love the other guy in their foxhole more than themselves. They found in war, men who loved life would give their lives for them”
To all those that have served, I want to thank you. Thank you for a selflessness that only few know. For going through things that would make most curl up and cry. For putting others before yourself. For fighting for those who don’t deserve it. For being selfless, brave, honorable, and courageous. I respect every person to ever put on the uniform and do something that I don’t know if I would have the courage to do.
I want to pull a section out of Stephen Ambrose’s book Band of Brothers, from one of the members of the Army’s 101st division Easy Company. In one of his last newsletters, Mike Ranney wrote:
“In thinking back on my days with Easy Company, I’m treasuring the remark to a grandson who asked, ‘Grandpa, were you a hero in the war?’ “’No’ I answered, ‘but I served in a company of heroes.’”
That quote goes for anyone who has ever donned the military uniform. They are the real heroes, keeping us safe and protecting our rights. We should take the time to sit down and listen to their triumph and tragedy, laugh and cry with them, and show them you care. Don’t let these things die, because once it is gone, it never comes back. We should appreciate everyday we have with these men and women, and not just one day a year.