This piece originally appeared in the November, 2006 issue of Texas Co-op Power Magazine.
November 11 is one of those obscure holidays, like Labor Day and Columbus Day, that seem to have lost meaning over the years. It's just another day off for many people -- if that. There are few special Veterans Day events and no traditional meal, gifts or greeting cards. It simply isn't part of important holiday traditions for most families, mine included. At least until a few years ago.
My father, a notorious pack rat, stored his war memories in the garage of our family home. There were pages and pages of yellowed, crumbling letters, and odds and ends like a silk map, flight logbook, invitation to a military banquet, clippings and photos. With many other veterans of World War II, he had come home, packed these things away, and gone on with his life without making a fuss about what he had done.
I discovered the cache during college, and the fact my father had saved these items for so long spoke volumes to me. I realized how important the experience had been to him and how much it had shaped him. Those dusty, bug-gnawed mementos brought a historic time to life, and made me realize that my father belonged to a generation of heroes. This epiphany was shared by much of the country about a decade later. (Thank you, Mr. Brokaw, for writing The Greatest Generation.) My new appreciation of my father and his generation came to a head with the construction of the World War II Memorial on the National Mall in Washington D.C.
Ground was broken for that memorial on November 11, 2000, the first remarkable Veterans Day of my life. I went to Washington for the celebration with my father, then 81, and my son Collin. My hope was to honor my dad and to put him in the middle of something meaningful. My hope was for my son to get it.
My kids knew the bare facts: How Grandpa arrived in the South Pacific in 1942, one of 17 newly minted first lieutenants, flew 57 missions to places with infamous names like Rabaul and Guadalcanal, and was one of only three of that 17 to return home. We won the war. But there is so much more to it than that, and I wanted Collin, 9 at the time, to understand.
We joined about 12,000 people that day on the windy, chilly hillside between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. Some were famous - the President of the United States, former Senator and veteran Bob Dole, actor Tom Hanks - but most were simply ordinary Americans, veterans of WWII and conflicts since, their spouses, children and grandchildren. Thousands were like my father, remnants of a generation that lately has been called great and noble. They wore old uniforms and medals, caps with the names of outfits, ships and squadrons.
A high school student passed out hand-made thank you notes; my father carefully tucked his in a pocket. Tom Hanks read a dispatch from the late war correspondent Ernie Pyle, and his voice carried over a silence I wouldn't have thought possible in such a large crowd. Senator Dole asked veterans to stand, if they were able. The applause was long and heart-felt. Bands played, a color guard carried flags snapping in the wind. In the distance, I could see the White House and the Capitol. The day was everything I had pictured, and surpassed my hopes.
Later, as we stood in line at the Washington Monument, a park ranger glanced at Dad's battered 13th Air Force cap and said "Thank you." The wind must have gusted just then, because my father's eyes watered. I tried to recall if I'd ever said those words out loud, and then it really hit me how this day had been neglected. I decided that from then on, Veterans Day would be noted at our house. We'd hang the flag, bake a cake, say "thank you."
Before that trip, my son thought war meant movies like Twelve O'Clock High, Patton and The Sands of Iwo Jima (oh yes, we've watched them all); patriotic songs at the school Veterans Day assembly (and bless the music teacher for having one every year); and a few of his grandfather's stories. But for a brief, shining moment, one war became more than some sentimental Hollywood scene, something beyond fancy duds or big jeeps, more alive than sentences in a textbook. It was real - real people in a real fight for their lives and our freedom. A generation, standing all around us, gave just about all it had so we could have all we want.
Sixteen million Americans, men and women, served in WWII, and more than 400,000 gave their lives in it. That day in 2000, fewer than 4 million remained, their average age over 80, and each year, another 400,000 die. My father became one of them in March, 2004, two months to the day before we were to return to Washington for the long-overdue opening of the WWII Memorial. I went anyway, with Collin and his little sister, Bridget. This time it was Memorial Day, May 29, 2004, and some 250,000 people turned out for a weekend-long "Tribute to the Greatest Generation." We left a small container of Grandpa's ashes, a photo, and a shell from the South Pacific next to the words "New Guinea" on the South Pacific end of the stunning memorial. I'll always cherish the memory of that day and the other one, four years before. Even better, I know my father's grandchildren will.
I hope and pray my children's generation will never know the experience of war as their grandfather did. But I want them to know and remember that he did, to appreciate what his generation of brave, unselfish men and women did, and what veterans from subsequent generations continue to do. I want them to believe that our country and our freedom are worth such sacrifices, that ordinary people who do what is right without thought of personal gain are the real heroes. And I want them to celebrate Veterans Day, this year and every year. You can, too.