Nearly 40 years ago, I attended a memorable dinner in Houston. Among my table-mates were: Commando Kelly, first recipient of the Medal of Honor in the European Theater in World War II; Pappy Boyington, the Marine aviator who gained fame as the subject of the TV series “Baa Baa Black Sheep;” and Eddie Rickenbacker, World War I flying ace. In some respects, it’s disconcerting for me to recall that also in attendance was a veteran of the Boxer Rebellion in China — in 1900. All those men are gone, as are millions of American service members who saved the United States and the rest of the world from the fascist scourge over 60 years ago.
Pat Tillman, killed in Afghanistan, made headlines because these days we believe it’s very strange that someone would think so much of his obligation to his country that he would give up a lucrative football contract to perform a service to our nation. But six decades ago, nearly everybody served in the armed forces — because as a community of Americans we agreed that it was essential to our survival as a nation. Ted Williams served, and so did Jimmy Stewart. Norman Mailer, Mel Brooks, Mitch Miller, Captain Kangaroo, Mister Rogers — they all served. And so did nearly 20 million of their fellow Americans during World War II.
Consider that magnificent cohort of young people that Tom Brokaw called “The Greatest Generation,” the brave Americans who answered the frantic call to prevent murderous megalomaniacs from destroying civilization. More than a thousand veterans of World War II are dying every day, and statistically they will all be gone in a decade. Not far behind are the winter patriots who braved the execrable conditions in the forgotten war in Korea and did their duty despite the frustration of a conflict with limited and frequently changing objectives. Many of them are now gone, too.
Most people think that the purpose of Veterans’ Day is to heap accolades on those remaining among us who wore the uniform of our country, and surely we must to do that. Most communities hold parades for their veterans, and there is a certain excitement and even mellow satisfaction in the communal pageant to honor, even for just one day, men and women who have served us so selflessly. But the day is fleeting, and when it’s gone, often the gratitude goes with it.
But surely there are other things we can and must do. No expenditure is too great to fix the broken bodies and spirits of many of our veterans, but Congress wastes our tax dollars on earmark programs and pork projects, money that should properly be spent to help wounded veterans and their families. Nearly a quarter of all homeless people are veterans, and not enough is being done to assist them, either.
One can easily determine the nature and quality of a society by observing what that society values. Today, only about one-half of one percent of Americans wear the uniform of our nation. Were service and sacrifice truly valued, uniformed service would not be the rarity that it is, and programs to care for our veterans would never want for a penny.