“Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.” –Ronald Reagan
From my earliest memories, Veterans were older men, some of whom were missing a limb. The word “veteran” had a special meaning as a child because my Dad was a veteran. He fought in the south Pacific in the United States Navy. And though he never talked about it very much my siblings and I respected and admired him for his military service.
My idea of what a veteran is matured, as I grew older. Remember the famous Life Magazine cover from the late 40s with a very young looking Audie Murphy sitting in a barber’s chair? He was getting a haircut in his hometown of Farmersville, Texas. He still looked as if he had just gotten out of high school. The interesting thing about the picture is that more than a dozen men are seen standing outside the large plate glass window staring at him in wonderment as the lady cuts his hair.
When I first saw that cover I thought to myself “What did he do that was so special?” I found out when I saw the movie To Hell and Back. He held off a regiment of German infantry and tanks with a .50 caliber machine gun on the back of a burning M-10 Tank Destroyer in a place called Holtzwihr, France. For that amazing feat he won the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Bob Feller was another American Veteran. He was the remarkably talented pitcher for the Cleveland Indians. He left his major league baseball career behind and enlisted in the United States Navy as a Chief Petty Officer. He fought all over the Pacific. He returned home after the war, picked up his mitt and ball and went straight into the Hall of Fame.
That’s a Veteran.
Have you ever watched an actor named James Stewart in a movie called It’s a Wonderful Life? In one of the greatest cinema clips ever filmed, George Bailey [Played by Jimmy Stewart] is visiting in an old high school friend’s home. The girl’s name is Mary Hatch [Played by Donna Reed]. George is acting nonchalant, almost disinterested at seeing Mary [though he is actually madly in love with her!] They are talking on an old fashioned wind-up wall phone together to another old high school chum when suddenly George [as he is smelling Mary’s hair] drops the phone and grabs Mary by the shoulders and begins shaking her back and forth! He says dramatically, “Now you listen to me! I don’t want to get married—ever—to anyone! You understand that?” Mary begins to cry and says, “Yes, yes!” George then exclaims loudly, “I want to do what I want to do! And you’re…and you’re…!” He then romantically and forcefully pulls Mary into a tight embrace and says, “Oh, Mary…Mary…!” as he passionately kisses her face and lips! Remember that amazing scene?
Well, few of us today realize that James Stewart had just gotten back from the Second World War where he had flown 20 sorties in a B-24 bomber over Berlin and over the German U-boat facilities at Kiel, Germany. In 1966, in a B-52, Stewart, as a non-duty observer flew a bombing mission during the Vietnam War! That’s what a Veteran is!
They are a quiet unassuming funeral parlor owner up in Antigo, Wisconsin, who just happened to be one of the flag raisers on Suribachi on Iwo Jimi.
They are a Pat Tillman who left a lucrative NFL career to join the United States Army Rangers following the 9-11 attack, and was killed by friendly fire in the Afghanistan Mountains in 2004.
And today, they are all around us, normal looking young men and women, again, many of them with missing limbs and eyes and fingers, who are still fighting unbelievable personal “wars” inside their heads, attempting to re-acclimate themselves back into “normal” American life. Hundreds of them aren’t doing a very good job of it, for every 65 minutes one of them takes their own life, every day in America.
These are all our Veterans. We owe them our freedom. We owe them our lives.
When you see one, salute them, shake their hand, stop and talk to them, take a good ‘selfie’ with them and then tell your kids and grandkids, “There goes a Veteran of the United States Military.” You will never waste your time and it will be some of the best moments you will ever share.