The Second World War ended an astonishing 69 years ago. The armistice for the Korean War was signed 61 years ago. We left Vietnam 41 years ago. These dates are rather like ancient history to many Americans, as distant as the Peloponnesian War.
And our more recent history? Desert Shield began in 1990, Desert Storm in 1991. We arrived in Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11, in 2001, and we returned to Iraq in 2003. Our troops left Iraq three years ago, though some have returned to help direct Iraqi forces battling ISIS. It was only two weeks ago today that U.S. Marines handed over Camp Leatherneck in Southwest Afghanistan to the Afghan Army.
Some of these wars have been more necessary than others. Some have been more successful.
But all of them have in common women and men who made sacrifices of the sort that make a day like this Tuesday, Veterans Day, important. In my own family, I will think of my uncle, Warren Nelson, a guy with blond hair, blue eyes, and a Hollywood jaw. If he hadn’t jumped from airplanes, once on D-Day in 1944, he might have been a movie star. But he did jump. Twice. He was a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne. He would walk with a slight limp for most of his life, because he was machine-gunned in the legs on his way to Bastogne in the Battle of the Bulge.
I will raise a glass to another uncle, Fred Muench, a veteran of the Korean War. Uncle Fred endured the sleet and snow of Korea and would forever hate the cold because of that war. And while he would never speak of the horrors he saw there, he did have one moment of incredible beauty: He escorted Marilyn Monroe during her USO tour in Korea in early 1954. (Of course, he always said that his wife, my Aunt Rose Mary was prettier than Monroe. As my cousin told me, he always preferred brunettes.)
I will spend a moment with my late father’s honorable discharge papers from the U.S. Army. He was spared combat in the Second World War, but he enlisted as soon as he graduated from high school in 1945. When he signed up, he had no idea that in weeks we would demolish Hiroshima and Nagasaki with atomic bombs. For all he knew, he would be on a troop ship later that summer to the Pacific theater.
I will say thanks to my next-door neighbor, Rudy Cram. Diligent readers of this column will recall that Rudy is the person who once told me, “A house can become a full-time job, if you let it.” Rudy is also the friend who has spent the most time with me breaking ice jams on my roof and helping me find my septic tank. Before that, however, he spent nine months in the Gulf of Tonkin, just off the coast of Vietnam, on the aircraft carrier USS Bon Homme Richard. He served from 1965 to 1967, enlisting, he told me, “because I felt I needed to do something that was beneficial to the country.”
I will recall Middlebury, Vermont’s Ron Hadley. Ron would pilot a landing craft through the choppy waters off Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, the wind around him riddled with anti-personnel shells fired from the Germans’ 88-millimeter guns.
And the next time I am at Bristol Fitness, I will shake my friend Chris Nugent’s hand. Chris was (among other things) an electronics technician in the Navy, serving in the Pacific and Indian Oceans from 1978-1984. Like Rudy, Chris enlisted because he wanted to be of service. He was already a World War Two history buff, and while in the Pacific he would dive among the ruins of sunken ships and Japanese Zeros that crashed. “It was eerie and overwhelming to see them,” he told me. “It was profound. On Veterans Day, I always think about the amazing things that ordinary people are capable of: Being scared to death but doing your job anyway. That’s bravery. That’s courage.”
Indeed. It’s why Veterans Day matters, and why I will be sure this Tuesday to thank the women and men I know who have served.
(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on November 9, 2014. Chris’s most recent novels are “The Light in the Ruins” and “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands.”)