Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A Reflection on Veterans Day, November 11, 2009

In 1950, when I was five-years-old and living in a small town in Kentucky, my first contact with anything military happened when my next-door neighbor, Mr. Abbot, gave me a disarmed shell he had brought back with him from World War I. Not long after that, my mother took me to a parade where Mr. Abbot and other old men paraded down the main street of town wearing funny-looking uniforms. Mom told me that the men had been soldiers when they were a lot younger. As I looked around, I saw men take off their hats and put their hands over their hearts as the American flag passed, and I noticed that several of them were crying.

All over the country on that particular day, Mom said, there were parades like this one. It was a special day called Armistice Day. Personally, I was disappointed because I had assumed there would be clowns and animals–maybe even elephants–in the parade. Why else would people be excited about a parade, and why would men cry because a flag passed by?

Jump forward to November 11, 1995. I was standing on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City with my grown-up son as we watched veterans from all American wars since World War I parade up Fifth Avenue. It took more than an hour for the parade to pass us. There were lines of cars carrying vets who were no longer able to walk. Some groups of veterans had tried, without much success, to organize themselves into discernible marching units. The desert camouflage of the veterans of the recent Gulf War looked peculiar to me, mixed in, as they were, with the solid colors of the uniforms from the other units.

But the groups that affected me the most were the veterans of the war in Vietnam. That was my war, a war that I had tried, unsuccessfully, to put behind me for so long. Tears blurred my eyes as I peered through the telephoto lens of my camera, hoping to spot a familiar face although I knew there was little hope in finding anyone I served with in 1970. Even if I had recognized them, I doubted they would recognize me. The twenty-five years that had passed had changed me from a cynical, sarcastic draftee into a middle-aged man with a receding hairline and expanding paunch. On this day, I stood on the steps of St. Pat’s silently weeping for the all the soldiers who had died in that unnecessary war.

My son put his arm around me and asked if I was okay. I told him that I was, but I didn’t say that I was immeasurably sad when I thought of what my beloved country had lost in that war: all the young men and women who had died, and the millions of veterans who had survived physically but who had never truly “come home.”

On Veterans Day this year, I will once again feel the sorrow of loss, but also a burning anger. When I consider what the warmongers in Washington have done with the lives our sons and daughters in the military in Iraq and Afghanistan, and what these new veterans face when they return home, I am filled with rage. When I think about the impotence of our elected officials of both parties to end this senseless war, and when I hear the drumbeats for starting yet another war in Iran, despair washes over me. Will we never learn?

For most of my fellow citizens, this Veterans Day will pass unobserved as have so many others. But if there is a parade in my hometown on this Veterans Day, and if a five-year-old boy sees an old man with his hand over his heart and tears running down his face as our flag passes by, he might be looking at me.


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