So long ago now that the day is no longer a memory for living souls, November 11, 1918, remains a significant day in history. On what was known back then as Armistice Day, The Great War (now known as World War I) ended after a grueling six weeks of battle in the French forest known as Meuse-Argonne. When it was all over 25,000 Americans were dead and more than 95,000 wounded. The price of glory, as always, was considerably high and involved the significant loss of American blood and treasure.
Looking back on it now so many years and Veteran’s Days later, we know that whatever was learned from such horrific numbers is largely forgotten. To my grandfather, who fought valiantly in that “war to end all wars,” there would come along something called World War II. This incredulous occurrence shook him because he and many of his friends thought that they had fought for something more than just a victory: they wanted to make sure it would never happen again.
Pop came back and lived his life. Many of his friends never came back, losing their lives over there. Some never returned home but lived, becoming expatriates because what they saw shook them so much, broke all belief in god and country, and made them wish to be anything but American. This wasn’t because they hated America but that they loved it, but now it was no longer possible to return home because part of themselves died in those forests and trenches. They had to remain behind as it were only to unite their lost selves with what was left of them.
As we all know war has never ended. There was World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Along the way more and more soldiers were lost, more treasure spent, and blood spilled in the deserts, on the beaches, and in the fields of the world all seemed for naught because peace remains elusive.
Yet brave men and women volunteer, go forward against all odds, and do what most people would not be able or willing to do. They are like those firefighters on 9-11 who went up while everyone else came down. There is something inherently noble and compelling about such dedication, such bravery, and this is more than love of country and honor of service – it is something bigger than the individual.
I have had family members who have fought in every war since the Spanish-American War. What I have always heard from them was there was a “sense of obligation” that encouraged them, inspired them, and drove them forward. They fought for something greater than themselves, believing in the idea that they were securing the future for their children and generations to come.
No one likes war; most of us despise it. All the people I have known who have been in the Armed Forces hated war too, but that didn’t stop them. They also loved their country and their families so deeply that they were willing to forego personal freedom and safety to do something to secure a better future.
However futile it may seem to us on the outside, no matter how much we disdain the politics of war and its hawks who wish to crush the doves, we must remember that these men and women are beyond that minutiae. They volunteer, they serve, and sometimes they die. They come home wounded or missing limbs and sometimes parts of themselves. They do not seek glory but they deserve respect, admiration, and some kind of consideration.
On this Veteran’s Day we should remember all those who died and all those who returned. Some never could march in a Veteran’s Day parade but still make their way each year in cars or in wheelchairs. No matter how I feel about all the wars – and for each of us that’s complicated by personal issues – I truly admire those who have served and who serve us now. These men and women are noble; they deserve a parade and more than we could ever give them.
Still, I think of Pop in his last years, the shaky hands that never went away. He had PTSD the rest of his life after the war, but it was dismissed as “shell shock” back then. He was supposed to go home and get over it.
In many ways he did just that. He joined a different force and became a New York City firefighter (no surprise to any of us), raised his family, saw his grandchildren grow up, and enjoyed life as much as he could. I picture him now sitting in his chair, holding a cigarette in one shaking hand and a glass of beer in the other. Yes, he never forgot what he lived through and the horrors that he witnessed, but he managed to live a life and in the end I don’t think we grandchildren (and now great grandchildren) could ask any more than that.
I salute all veterans today, but especially my grandfather, father, uncles, and cousins who all served with honor. Maybe one day we will see the enduring peace that they thought they were fighting for but never was achieved. That peace may come someday, and then the spirits of all those who served can rest knowing that their mission has finally been accomplished.
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