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November 11, 2010

On Veterans Day

Today is Veterans Day, a holiday that is often confused with Memorial Day. Like Memorial Day (which began as a remembrance of those lost in the Civil War), Veterans Day began as a remembrance of those lost in The War to End All Wars:

World War I – known at the time as “The Great War” - officially ended when the Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28, 1919, in the Palace of Versailles outside the town of Versailles, France. However, fighting ceased seven months earlier when an armistice, or temporary cessation of hostilities, between the Allied nations and Germany went into effect on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. For that reason, November 11, 1918, is generally regarded as the end of “the war to end all wars.”

In November 1919, President Wilson proclaimed November 11 as the first commemoration of Armistice Day with the following words: "To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations…"

The war to end all wars: if only that were true. If only it could be true. But as one author wrote years ago, every battle - every war - is fought for things worth dying for. Those "things" may be as quotidian and concrete as the desire to protect one's friends or as abstract as the notion that freedom is a fire that burns in every heart, regardless of race, religion, nationality. I believe it was George Santayana who said, "Only the dead have seen the end of war".

We carry it in our hearts. But Veterans Day, though it began as a memorial to the fallen of WWI, has come to be a remembrance of the tremendous debt we the protected owe to those who are willing to fight and die to preserve the freedoms we enjoy:

We need to relearn the habits of debts as things to be repaid, and today - the day we're reminded so concretely of those who have loaned us their lives, their souls, and their health and who need to be paid back.

Today take that thought - that we owe our soldiers and veterans and should through our actions and lives pay them back. Tomorrow, revisit it and see if it can become a lens you look at all of your life through. To who else do you owe a debt that can never be repaid, and how will you serve others to try and pay it back?

Today soldiers are the primary lienholder. But they are not the only one. Everyone who's come before us to make this country what it is - and what it could be - is our creditor. And we owe them.

We owe them our respect, and most of all we owe them our effort to make this a better place - in whatever way suits us. And we owe them the admission that what we've inherited - not just the physical stuff, but far more valuable, the ideas - they handed us are rare, extraordinary and exceptional.

Veterans day reminds us that we owe this nation's fighting men and women a debt of honor. And like all debts, it should be honored. Part of that debt is a duty to remember the past honestly and without flinching at the parts that don't reflect well on us as a nation or as a people:

Forty some odd years ago, as a new lieutenant, I was in charge of a detachment sent to honor a soldier killed in Vietnam at his funeral. We practiced our routine, folding the flag and its presentation for hours the day before. We traveled the next day in civilian cars and clothes. The Army felt we shouldn’t travel in uniform or in government vehicles for fear of an “incident” which were all too common then.

We arrived, changed and reported in to the funeral director. We didn’t know that the young widow hadn’t requested our presence, but instead the funeral home had done so as it routinely did when a service member died or was killed.

We were either roundly ignored or endured hostile stares as we sat in the back of the chapel. At the conclusion of the ceremony, and under intensely cloudy skies, we followed a few cars to the cemetery a short distance away to do our duty. As we approached the burial site, the heavens opened up.

There was no funeral home tent over the grave and, as it turned out, only my detachment got out of our cars and went graveside. There, in the pouring rain, we rendered honors to our fallen comrade.

After receiving the folded flag from the NCOIC of the detachment, I turned toward the car that I knew contained the widow and approached the back window on the side she was sitting. She was staring straight ahead and it seemed I was left to stand there forever. Finally, the driver from the funeral home must have said something because she turned toward me with a sullen stare, rolled the window down part way and snatched the flag from my hands before I could even begin to say what my duty compelled me to say to her. Without another look, she ordered the driver to depart and I was left rendering a hand salute to the tail lights of the few cars that had bothered to attend the service.

That was the Army and nation with which I began my service. It was literally and figuratively one of the blackest days of my time in the military.

Part of that debt is to remember those who have fallen. It saddens me more than I can say to note that my hometown paper, The Washington Post, has not updated its "Faces of the Fallen" since September 30th. Evidently, some grim milestones are more useful than others.

Part of that debt involves a commitment never to forget the sacrifices made on our behalf by men and women both living and dead:

Six months after the German surrender, my father finally made his way back to his New Hampshire village. He hung up his uniform and picked up his scissors. My mother - his wife of two years - took off the welder's mask she'd worn at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. They enjoyed 52 postwar years together. Their five children have enjoyed a total of 282 years. This is not just math; it's life. It was the vague dream my father was imagining while digging foxholes in the Apennines. It was an outcome that might have been denied by a random piece of shrapnel or an order to stand guard duty.

I thought of that if-clause last month when reading the announcement that four soldiers had been killed while conducting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan:

Cpl. Justin J. Cain, 22, of Manitowoc, Wis.

Lance Cpl. Phillip D. Vinnedge, 19, of Saint Charles, Mo.

Lance Cpl. Joseph E. Rodewald, 21, of Albany, Ore.

Pfc. Victor A. Dew, 20, of Granite Bay, Calif.

We must feel this sacrifice. We must remember their service. Their dreams have ended. And each death conceals a clause that loved ones will repeat for years: "If only he hadn't . . . " The unfinished thoughts will hang in the air, silenced by the countless dreams of what might have been.

A long, unbroken line stretches from the present day to ancient wars lost in the mists of time. It is formed by uncounted millions who, when the time came to fight for what they believe in, did not flinch. Fathers, sons, brothers, wives, sisters.

Mothers, now. They have fought, and will continue to fight, for us. Do not forget them, or the sacrifices that make peace more than just an unattainable dream.

We have so very much to be thankful for.

Posted by Cassandra at November 11, 2010 12:37 PM

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