Veterans are a breed of men and women unlike no other and for those of us who have never had to serve in the uniform of our armed forces they tend to be larger than life at times. It’s easy for me to see them that way too. I’ve never had to look down the barrel of a gun into the eyes of another human being who is hell bent on killing me. I’ve never stood in a trench under gunfire and seen my best friend there one second and gone the next and had to question why that bullet took them and spared me. I’ve never had to sleep outdoors in a jungle in the rain with my hand on a weapon and I’ve never been more than a phone call away from everyone that I care about in my life. For me, it is easy to see them that way.
Veterans don’t see themselves the same way that I see them. Many would prefer to forget what they had to endure and what they went through, if that were possible for them to do and you know something? That is their right to forget if they want to and if they can but the rest of us don’t get that right. For us, it is our responsibility to remember. For us, it isn’t a choice but an obligation that we do so.
I grew up around people who would make sure that I did. I was lucky to have two grandfathers who lived many years into my adult life. One was born in 1907 which made him too young to serve in World War I. By the time World War II started, he was 34, twice as old as some of the 17 year olds that were going off to war, with a wife and child. He never had to fight a war but he often talked about his older brother Jesse who died in France during “The Great War”. He was only ten or eleven years old when Jesse died but be never forgot him or the sacrifice he made in the First World War and he made sure we didn’t either.
My other grandfather was born in 1910 and was a single, 31 year old when the Second World War began. To his surprise, he found himself drafted and he left behind his job as a school principal, was inducted into the army and served in Africa and Europe, finding himself involved in some of the worst battles of the war. In addition, I had a number of great-uncles that served in World War II and these men and many others came home from that war and built the America that we have today.
Painted as a backdrop to these real-life heroes that I grew up around were the big screen ones in the old movies that I still enjoy today. Even though these were actors following a script, for me and many others, they at least brought a glimpse of what things might have been like and they always displayed those American Soldier attributes of courage, honor, strength and a can-do attitude. James Cagney, Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, Gary Cooper and others made me believe that the American Soldier, Sailor, Marine and Aviator could do anything, against all odds and under any condition. Later, Hollywood decided to let us see a little more of what things were really like with movies like Pearl Harbor, Band of Brothers, Saving Private Ryan and similar. When it was reported that some Veterans had difficulty watching them because many of them found this new generation of war movies to be a little too realistic, I felt I had to watch them so that I could at least try to gain a greater sense of what they had endured. Seeing these films put me as close to being there as it was possible for me and it only added to the awe and respect I have for them.
I’ve known a lot of Veterans in my life; in fact, I’ve probably known Veterans without knowing that they once served their country proudly because many of them just live their lives and enjoy freedoms they have fought for without ever telling their story. I’ve worked alongside of them too and seen that “can-do” attitude time and time again. One I won’t say much about because I know he is a private man but I and many others know what he sacrificed and what he left behind in Vietnam. I was also privileged to work under another Veteran of Vietnam, a man who served his country so well that they awarded him a Bronze Star and a battlefield commission to the rank of Second Lieutenant. These are just two examples but they prove an interesting point. Veterans are all around us and we frequently go about our daily lives around them and enjoy what America offers without ever knowing about them or thinking much about what they did to give us that freedom….and what many are doing right now, this very day, to give us a measure of safety, security and the ability to enjoy the fruits of liberty.
That is the danger we face when it comes to Veterans; that we who live under the flag of freedom and liberty will forget who they are and what they have done. Fortunately, there are ways we can avoid this. For many months now, I’ve watched a living tribute to our Veterans slowly come to life in the small community that I live in. For some who served in our military, it has been a lifetime dream that is finally coming into reality. For others, it has been an opportunity to honor loved ones that literally marched off into battle. Some came home. Others didn’t. For our community, it is a thing of reverence and a place of honor and sacrifice. For our Veterans, it’s a tribute.
Call it a monument, call it a memorial, it’s a park where heroes both living and dead are honored and remembered and it will become a symbol to our posterity. A wall of dark granite, inscribed with the names of those who gave their lives in the service of our country and two more walls inscribed with the names of those who were willing and ready to do so and who stood up and answered that call when it came. Like the Veterans whose names are inscribed there, I only have a glimpse into the mammoth task that it was to create such a place. I’ve watched my wife put countless hours above and beyond the workweek into this project and she is just one person involved with it. When you add in the hours that went into it by her coworkers, then factor in the hours contributed by the Veterans and the citizens who volunteered to help with it, you come to realize that hundreds of hours, really thousands of hours by scores of people, have gone into making this lasting tribute to our Veterans a real possibility.
This Saturday, they will enjoy the fruits of their labor for a day but to the Veterans that will be assembled there and the descendants of those who aren’t here to see it, that day and every day the monument stands will belong to them. On that day, soldiers past and soldiers present will stand alongside the unseen spirits of those who gave all that they had, proudly hearing the words that are spoken, the music that is played and seeing the affection of a grateful community and nation.
For me, writing comes very easily and words usually can flow from my mind onto paper as easily as rain falling on autumn leaves but there are times that words come with difficulty. The only part I played in this project, aside from being a cheerleader for it, was being asked to come up with a single line that might sum up what this place was about. This time, the faucet was closed and the words didn’t flow because no matter what I came up with, they would never truly convey the power of this place or the debt we all owed to those whose name appeared on it. I finally came up with “In this hallowed place, we remember the sons and daughters of Butts County who died so that liberty might live”. I don’t say this here to get credit for it but to try to impart how completely the best words I could come up with cannot come close to summing up the best that they gave to us. No words can.
I am just thankful to God that my name is not on that wall and that I didn’t have to endure what it took to be there. I pray that I will never have to see the name of my son or any other family member on that big wall, the one reserved for those who fell in battle, the Wall of Remembrance I’ll call it. I also hope I never have to see his name on the other walls, the ones reserved for those who have honorably served their country in the military, many of whom will be there on Saturday to see it unveiled. I’ll call those the Walls of Honor and Duty. No matter what though, I will make sure he always knows about those whose names are on it, why they are there and why they must be remembered. I’ll make sure he knows right where the name of his great-great uncle is inscribed, a man who died a half century before I was born but one who I was never allowed forgetting about.
I hope that each person who is there and those who come after it is dedicated will pledge to make sure that others remember them all as well because we owe that to them and so much more. Our Veterans deserve to live in the memories and the stories that are passed down and not to vanish in the sands of time. To each one, living and dead, thank you for your service and for your sacrifice.