I grew up with a lot of relatives, most of them close by, and the uncles who served during World War II all came back to us, although I did not see them in uniform as I hadn’t arrived on the planet yet. Cousins who served in—or during (as we learned from the state attorney general’s experience, that is a telling distinction)—the Korean War returned as well. All of them had cut dashing figures in uniform, according to the photos in family albums, and they looked healthy. My ears never heard any of their stories, if they were sharing them, and if any of them bore scars, physical or emotional, that was not evident and certainly not a topic. Neither my brother nor my husband was called up to serve during the Vietnam War. Two college friends were, however, and later returned home safely, but we lost touch as they went on to make their life after the war.
That makes me many steps removed from the challenges and pain so many families have had to deal with, and some still do. But two brief experiences, more than a generation apart, have sunk their hooks in me, or pierced the bubble of naiveté, if you will. I can remember sitting by Lake Quassy in Middlebury one sunny summer afternoon with a former grammar school classmate, who had called to ask to pay a visit. The last time I had seen him was our eighth-grade graduation. Here I was, a recent college graduate who was about to start my first job, teaching high school, and sometime during the eight intervening years he had become a Green Beret. That summer, while the war was beginning to peak in Southeast Asia, he was back home, but briefly. He had signed up for another tour of duty, to fight the wrong of “man’s inhumanity to man,” I’ll always remember him saying, with a few anecdotes to illustrate why. I never heard from him again, but I’m happy not to have found his name on the list of the Connecticut casualties of the Vietnam War.
Fast forward a few decades. A few years back, my son, now in his 30s, introduced me to a friend from Connecticut with a surname I recognized. I knew someone with that name in high school, I told them. It was the young man’s uncle, a Marine who died in South Vietnam less than five months after he entered military service.
Both stick, not so much in memory as in continual suspension, from which they are quickly called to mind. And so when “veteran” is mentioned or is the topic, they pull my chain, sound an alert, from wherever they are in history: Do something for the veterans, for those who have given so much.
In olden days and other nations, rulers and military leaders promised their troops a place in history if they survived the battles in which they were called to engage. Following the Civil War in this country, the national holiday we know as Memorial Day was proclaimed to honor the memory of Americans who had died in their nation’s service and Veterans Day (originally Armistice Day) was designated to honor those who served in this country’s wars.
Whether those who had served in the armed forces were conscripted or volunteered for military service, they were united in their “striving for freedom with a full knowledge of its price,” to echo the words of a World War II veteran who was interviewed in a feature that aired on the Arts & Entertainment television network some years ago. Families and communities across the nation attest to the truth of another observation, that “Those who are no longer with us are within us.”
America is at war again, this time the War Against Terror, and the ugliness of the conflicts and inhumanity of the brutality continue to be broadcast by the media. Veterans of World War II, who are said to be dying at the rate of 1,500 per day, and those who took part in other wars carry with them vivid service memories, no matter how long ago they had been engaged in military action. They readily attest to the huge, and often to some extent transformational, impact it has had on lives—not only theirs but others who took up arms to fight.
Soldiers and families of members of the armed forces know that there are a lot of “deaths”—or many kinds of serious loss—that those who remain must find some way not only to endure but overcome—disruption of a family’s way of life and emotional security; economic challenges; and psychological, physical health or philosophical uncertainties.
This Veterans Day, let the holiday serve as a reminder that, first and last, sincere respect is due those who serve to protect the freedom this country enjoys. How to convey that is easy, actually. Show up for them. Stand alongside them at local ceremonies, or listen when they step forward to share some thoughts and experiences, as they do in area classrooms each year during Veterans Week; support their service organizations, like the VFWs, which, as District 5 commander Jim Delancy of New Milford said, are committed to help with “anything for the veterans.”
Here at The Housatonic Times, continuing the tradition of the discontinued New Milford Times and Brookfield Journal, we believe in throwing the spotlight on our area veterans. See Friday’s paper, in print and online, for Brookfield’s “Salute” and several New Milford events that convey our respect.