Monday, November 11, 2013

Veterans' Day

Half a century ago, I sat in a veteran's day assembly at my high school and listened to a white-haired gentleman deliver a Veterans' Day message. Back then, I wondered "What does this mean to me?" and "Why is this important?"
This year I am the white haired gentleman addressing the assembly.
My classmates, many of whom had a parent, uncle, or cousin who served in World War 2, were well acquainted with veterans. Many of today's students are not. Not knowing, they do not understand what a veteran is, or why veterans are honored on November 11 every year.
By my definition, a veteran is someone who, at one point in their life, wrote a blank check to the United States of America for an amount up to and including his or her life and then lived to tell about it.
I once wrote such a check.
Long ago, I raised my right hand and swore to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, to bear true faith and allegiance to the same, and to obey the orders of the President of the United States and the officers appointed over me.
Nothing has ever released me from that oath. Nothing ever can. Nothing ever will.   
When I took that oath I became a soldier. When I resumed civilian life, I became a veteran.
As a soldier, I fought the battles of this nation in a war in a country that no longer exists. Even as I fought, some of our national leaders and celebrities had declared the war lost and our sacrifice meaningless. Nevertheless, I went where my country sent me. There, to the best of my ability, I strove for victory in places called Tan Canh, Firebase Delta, Firebase Charlie, Ben Het, Polei Kleng, and Kontum.
During those times, I risked everything for my friends and for people I never knew and never will. They would have done the same for me. Most would do the same today. We are, and remain, a band of brothers.
I am a veteran.
With my fellow veterans, I share a heritage that begins in the earliest mists of the human experience and will continue until the last trumpet sounds, a heritage of personal loyalty and sacrifice, a heritage of desperate deeds done by desperate men in the face of great adversity.
I came home on a stretcher to a country that was largely indifferent to my sacrifice and that of my fellows. By the grace of God, I recovered.
My friend Tim died at a place called Ben Het thirty days after he arrived in country.
Fred, on his third combat tour, died in the Kontum Pass and now sleeps in Arlington.
Dusty sleeps in the land he died fighting for, the site of his resting place undiscovered until recently.
Bill spent nine months in captivity.
Mike lost both legs to a land mine. Tom lost his left arm, right leg, and the middle finger of his right hand.
Flame took a .50 cal through the chest and lives today to tell about it. Like Bill, he went on to serve until retirement.
All served honorably.
We left as sons and daughters, husbands, wives, fathers, and mothers. We returned as veterans. Some of us came back with bodies mangled by man's instruments of destruction, others with minds mangled by what they had seen, experienced, and survived.
As always, when the war ended, we as a nation buried our dead and hastened the return of those who survived to civilian life, not realizing how they were forever changed.
Ultimately, we took off our uniforms and assumed our places in civilian society, but we remain different.
It is written somewhere that "You have never lived until you have almost died. To those who have fought for it, freedom has a flavor the protected will never know."
We, the veterans of the armed services know best the flavor of freedom and its cost. We fought for this nation and its freedom. We value this nation and that freedom above wealth, above property, and above life itself. 

We will strive to protect that freedom until our dying breath.
Once, we offered our lives to the nation. Most of us would proudly do it again.
At the dedication of the military cemetery at Gettysburg, President Lincoln stated "The world will little note nor long remember what we say here. But it can never forget what they did here."
Since the days of Lincoln, the nation has engaged numerous wars, each more terrible than the last, each producing a new generation of veterans. Once young, the veterans of each war become old and pass from the scene, the memory of their service and sacrifice too quickly forgotten. Like the soldiers of the 1860s, the veterans living today have dared and accomplished much. One day, we too shall pass from the scene.
This Veterans' Day, it falls to us to dedicate ourselves to bringing this nation a new birth in the freedom so dearly purchased.
I ask you to do something.
The next time you step outdoors, breathe deeply. Take in the air. Savor it as you would a fine wine. Identify in it every smell you can. The air in this nation is unique. It is the air of freedom.
Breathe deeply and savor -- do it as often as you will. Learn what freedom tastes like. 
Exercise your freedom proudly with every choice you make.  

Learn that freedom is not a matter of rights and choices but also of responsibilities and consequences.  
And, once you have breathed the air of freedom, exercised you freedom and learned what it tastes like, stop and  thank a veteran.
We did it for you.

Can you handle it?