Back in the spring of 2004 — in the days just before and around the time that the World War II Memorial at the National Mall on 17th Street officially opened to the public — there were contingents of the veterans of that momentous war gathered in place from all over the United States.
You could tell by their age, the sunset of their times in the glory of their times, the men and women, who had come to be dubbed “The Greatest Generation” of Americans, and were being so honored at the memorial, sitting on its step stooping over the emblems and wreaths, walking slowly, some with their families, some solemn by themselves, in uniform, or just plain short-sleeved shirts, coming down from the steps of buses from Iowa, Georgia, New York and Ohio and so forth.
This thing, this place and its special mojo began to reveal itself long before the dignitaries-with-speeches formal opening in May. For days on end, groups of veterans had been showing up just to look and be there. Everyday tourists in turn would notice them, and often a boy, a man and his son, somebody or other, would come up the veterans and start talking, and then step back and salute, and say some version or another of “Thank you for your service.”
At the time, I don’t think the phrase had come into that common usage that it is today, almost a rote reaction to any interaction with a veteran.
Back then, it seemed truly and vividly special, not that far removed for the reason of gratitude. I recall a heavy-set, tanned man, a man who had just retired from farming in the Midwest, and suddenly being saluted with the phrase and a snap salute. He was startled at first, and then he looked up and stood up and returned the salute, and you could see he had tears on his face.
This happened often, but not so often as to lose its power, and not so often as to be just another thing.
In one instance, by one of the fountains, a young woman, was with her grandfather, who wore the uniform of an U.S. Army infantryman — a private first class. He was in a wheelchair, and thin, but lively. He could no longer see. He talked to me about being at the Battle of the Bulge and about Gen. George Patton. “Oh, yeah,” he said, “that tough S.O.B.”
A young boy walked up to him, definitely part of the 21st century, Bermuda shorts, tattoos up and down the arms, a semi-Mohawk hair cut, sunglasses, a flower in hand. “Is it okay?” he asked the granddaughter. She smiled and nodded. In his young voice, the kid stood up tall and said, “Thank you for your service.” The PFC smiled.
He was a veteran, and all of them enriched the city during the opening years of the 21st century. In the Middle East, there was a war going in Iraq, which American soldiers and future veterans had invaded the year before and where roadside bombs and dismemberment posed a constant danger.
Today is officially Veterans Day, which means that if you had been a member of any branch of the U.S. military —be it Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force or Coast Guard —in time of war and in time of peace—you call yourself a veteran.
I guess I can call myself and be recognized technically as a veteran, having served in the U.S. Army for three years from 1961 to 1964. There was a war going on then, too, or just simmering and festering in South Vietnam, where the United States had army units, Special Forces, along with some ships, bases and planes.
I never went to South Vietnam. I never heard a shot fired in anger, although I recognized the sound of an M-14 or M-1 rifle, the weapons of the infantryman, from my basic training days at Fort Knox, Kentucky, back in 1961. These years were the beginning of the torturous trial of Vietnam, and the Civil Rights era, along protests and changes of the most painful sort in our culture.
With respect and vivid imagery, I can recall my life in the military, although I can honestly say I was not of a military bent with any special skills or experience.
I enlisted and in so doing learned some of the basic skills for becoming a journalist as an information specialist. I became immersed in a unique culture with different rules, different hierarchies, where the pecking orders of respect and ambition were easily recognizable from stripes to bars and silver and gold leafs and stars of rank.
In some ways, for me, you could see where the life could be intoxicating as well as sometimes terrifying—behavior, good or bad, had immediate consequences of reward and punishment. It was a place, for boys and young men, that was a testing round of sorts with all the prejudices that young men and boys were capable of.
It was unique, and surprisingly, although clumsy by nature and not very physically strong, I thrived and did well. While not serving in a distant jungle in Southeast Asia, I felt some small inkling of the appeal of charging up a hill at night with trace bullets flying overhead might have from basic training exercises. It was an organized world—by bunk house, foxhole, office, units of differing sizes, a mailing address of identification.
Technically and with certainty, I identify as a veteran. However, with more than just humility, I cannot say I approached the level of clear valor or experience that would allow myself to call myself a kind of soldier who bled in any of the bleeding places of the world.
On Veterans Day, I remember being in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, near Rolla and the Ozarks, for two and half years. I wore the khaki, the uniform, the formal green, the combat boots without the combat, the decoration of rank. I remember it as rich and unforgettable, without appreciating it at the time.
Here is to that PFC in the wheel chair, seeing Patton at a cross roads, directing traffic, pulling his own M1 over his shoulders in winter.
Thank you for your service.