My great-great-great grandfather fought in the Civil War, for a cause that I’m not particularly proud of. My great-great Uncle Fred fought in WWI. That one was a game changer, and apparently, he was never the same after. One of my grandfathers fought in WWII, and the other, “4 F on account of his ear” (like George Bailey), worked along side my grandmother at Lockheed Martin (then Bell Bomber) building planes.
My father lost many of his classmates in Vietnam and was getting ready to go himself when Nixon pulled us out. My father-in-law served in Vietnam. It’s shameful how the Vets were treated upon returning home.
And today is Memorial Day–a time to reflect and be grateful for the service of our veterans. It is not a day to glorify war, though–a great evil in our world.
And I am thankful–for family members past and present who have served, for students (babies, really) who enter the service right out of high school, unaware of the full enormity of their decision, but making it just the same.
They say that every time an old person dies, a library burns. That’s true. I remember the first time one of my former students was killed in action in Afghanistan. All I could think was how sad it was that he had barely even begun to construct his own library. There’s a kind of tragedy in the death of a young person that is deeply sad because the destruction of potential is somehow worse than the loss of what was already built.
Either way, there’s something in me that desperately wants to know their stories–from the Afghan vet who is younger than I am and describes the landscape of that country (that he considers beautiful, and hopes to visit again in less tumultuous times) to the WWII vet who guided freedom fighters over the Pyrenees and into Spain during the Nazi occupation of France (who would really rather tell me about his great grandchildren).
I am fortunate to work at a school that collaborates with our local veterans.Thanks to my department head, Steve Quesinberry, each semester, we have a Student-Vet-Connect for our students and local veterans. The veterans set up booths at the armory across from our school, and we take our students across the street to talk to the vets. Even my most disengaged students get into this.
This year, I walked around frantically talking to the WWII vets. Their numbers are rapidly diminishing. I had talked to them many times before, but this time I wanted something else. I didn’t want their war stories–I wanted the personal side. They were glad to talk.
I learned from one man that he was engaged to his high school sweetheart before he shipped off to the Pacific. He thought he would only be gone for a year and gave her his class ring as a keepsake. He was gone for three years, met his wife in the interim, and thought he would never see that ring again. In 1995, he moved back to his hometown. One day, out of the blue, he received a call from his former sweetheart. She asked him if he would like his ring back. He said he would, and she returned it.
He smiled, recalling how jealous that made his late wife.
Others recalled children being born while they were deployed. One Vietnam Vet (I didn’t only interview WWII vets) flew a helicopter with his commanding officer to meet a recent arrival in a far-away town who had brought a picture of his new daughter. His “new” daughter is one of my current colleagues.
One lady looked sad as she told me about leaving her young daughter to go to the Persian Gulf, but her face brightened as she described her newest grandchild.
Her grandchild, and all of us, owe them thanks. Not because they are heroes, not because war is noble, but for the opposite reasons. We owe them thanks because they are regular people who have endured the horrors of war so that we, they, and their and our progeny can continue to enjoy the freedoms that this nation affords us all.
What are your contemplations on this Memorial Day? Leave a comment below to let me know!