When I was a kid in Salt Lake sometime during the last century, we had a big parade every year on July 24th, which is Utah’s Statehood Day, and that parade was even bigger than the one on the Fourth. There were floats, bands, fancy cars and all sorts of patriotic displays.
There was also a cadre of men, the ages of my dad and my grandfather, in the parade right up front behind the grand marshal. The older men rode in convertibles and the younger marched proudly in formation. Some wore hats and parts of uniforms, and many carried flags. I asked my Grandmother who these men were and she replied, “they’re veterans.”
“What’s a veteran?” I asked, “What does that mean?"
“Veterans are men and women who have served in the Navy or the Army or the Marines during the War,” she replied. We watched them pass proudly line by line.
I still didn’t understand the significance of the word veteran even though we soon began to hear about our military serving in Korea and how many of them were being killed or wounded. They would also be called veterans.
Let’s fast forward to the mid ‘60s. As a new college graduate, I was informed by my draft board that I would soon have the opportunity to become a veteran. Twenty-plus years later, I retired from the Air Force and joined my civilian counterparts still without an adequate understanding of what it meant to be a veteran even though I was one and had served with many others. I didn’t think about it much until I retired a second time years later.
I was recruited by the Library of Congress to do interviews for the Veterans History Project in order to record the oral histories of veterans. I began the interviews and I was, to say the least, amazed. The stories poured forth and reflected not only the tragedy and suffering but also the humor and poignant stories common to all servicemen and women. The vets came from every income level, every social status, every race, and from all across our great country. The only things they had in common were that they had been through many of the same experiences and all had the same feelings for their country and what it meant to be an American.
I interviewed an 80 year old Army veteran who had been in the Normandy landings. He had been a young Mexican-American growing up in Farmington, New Mexico who had never strayed more than 25 miles from home when he was drafted. After training, he was sent to England to await the invasion of France. A few days after the landing, he received a head wound and was captured by the Germans, held for a few days, and then retrieved by fellow G.I.s. After recovering at a hospital in England, he was returned to the front where he received the Silver Star for taking a machine gun position by himself. Even though he stood barely five feet, he managed to operate the large Browning Automatic Rifle which was nearly as long as he was tall and he ensured his unit’s success without further casualties. He returned to New Mexico after the war, married his high-school sweet heart and moved to California where he and his wife raised their children.
I remember the Coast Guard Veteran, a mere man of forty who had never been in war, never seen combat. By his own admission, as a youngster he was aimless and a drifter. Often on the verge of trouble and without any real possibilities, he enlisted in the United States Coast Guard and after a lackluster year or so of active duty the cutter on which he was a crewman was called to a sinking sailboat off the east coast of the United States. In treacherous seas, they rescued several children from the distressed boat and from that point on, he said, he realized he had a purpose in life and that he could make a difference and what he did counted. He became a career coastguardsman, husband, and father and he retired after 20 plus years of service.
So what is it that makes a veteran? Is it combat experience? I don’t think so because for every soldier, sailor or airman who saw combat, there were nine or ten behind him who provided the support for him to be successful. Could it have to do with intelligence? Possibly, but it seems that common sense always prevailed. Was it bravery? Many are never called upon to demonstrate this.
No. It is many things. It’s an ability to deal with boredom and endure separation from home and family and know that these things would only end when victory was assured. It’s a feeling of a duty to answer the call of your country in its time of need. It’s the ability to rise to the occasion no matter what the cost. It’s loyalty to one’s country and, particularly, to one’s fellows. It’s a sense of what is right and proper and a commitment to do that which is right and proper no matter what.
It is what makes this country, our country, so wonderful and so great and such a shining ray of hope in such a troubled world. God bless America.