Learning what veteran really means

Published 6:18 pm Friday, November 10, 2023

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I used to think of veterans as balding men who rode in parades and gathered at barbecues and fish fries to swap war stories but without thinking much about the sacrifices they and their families had made so that I could enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Now, it wasn’t because I didn’t know about war. Even a peaceful nation knows about war.

I was born during a war. My daddy was a pilot during World War II. I knew, vaguely about Korea.

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I was in college during Vietnam when many were getting deferments and exemptions and some were burning their draft cards and Old Glory. I knew about that.

I watched as this nation turned its back on the veterans of that war. I watched as POWs came home but I didn’t really know.

I didn’t understand about veterans until my own son was called to war. It was only then that I could somehow know and appreciate the sacrifices veterans and their families had made.

I learned as I watched the deployment of 20,000 Marines from Camp Lejeune to the Persian Gulf. I learned as I listened to the ceaseless incantation of famous Marine Corps battles – Belleau Wood, Chateau, Thierry, Iwo Jima, Inchon, Guadalcanal, Chosin, Khe Sanh … “And now, Southeast Asia.”

I learned on an icy Christmas day when this nation was on the brink of war in the Middle East. When we had a Christmas dinner of Vienna sausage and crackers on Onslow Beach with my son.

I learned when the stillness of that Christmas night was broken by the roar of buses coming to take those fresh-faced young men to war.

I learned as I waited and watched as war loomed ever closer and my son’s unit edged closer and closer to the border of Kuwait.

I learned as the face of a freckled-face Marine, killed-in-action, haunted all of us from the cover of TIME magazine.

I learned from the words of Dan Rather, “The liberation of Kuwait had begun.” It was only then that I really understood what it means to be a nation at war.

Over the next long weeks I learned what it means to wait at home while young soldiers defend freedom in a far and distant land.

I learned what it is to wait and worry and wonder in times of war.

As last, I learned what it means when soldiers come home, when veterans come home.

But the veterans who came home weren’t like those I had pictured in my mind. They weren’t old men with balding heads … just kids who had been willing to do the toughest job on earth.

It was then that I realized that veterans are never old … not in the beginning. Years of peace age them.

And, in those years of peace, we too often forget the sacrifices of these brave and courageous people, these veterans. Or, maybe, it’s not that we forget; maybe it’s because many of us don’t know … or  just haven’t learned, not yet.

(Reprinted upon request. Thanks for remembering.)