Close your eyes and think of the most vulnerable time in your life. Try to imagine you are there again right now. Take in the same scents, sites, and sensations.
How old were you?
Where were you?
Who were you with?
How long did it last?
How did you survive?
If you or a loved one have served in the military for them the answers may not be so easy. They don’t get to leave those experiences at the door, so to speak, when they board a plane to come home. As is the same with everyone the experiences we have both good and bad shape who we become. They forever alter how we perceive the universe we live in and how we move on, those who are lucky enough to do so.
In honor of Veteran’s Day I thought I would take the time to reflect back on the origins of this holiday and the importance of its creation and existence today. For many (myself included), it was just a day off from work or a great day to catch a sale or at least a preview sale at Macy’s. Sure there is a parade and nowadays we tweet how grateful we are to have our freedoms but it is mostly all surface level behaviors. In order to delve into this we need to peel the onion and the first thing to go is the selfishness behind these types of behaviors.
I first realized the extreme vulnerability of the life of a soldier in combat when I read “Flags of Our Fathers”. This book tells the story of the men in the now infamous picture that hung the flag at Iwo Jima during World War II. The brilliant author James Bradley not only tells the truth behind that days events but for me really described the reality of what it was like for those men to have had trained for battle and then get shipped off not even knowing where they were going. When then arrived on that shore the horror they witnessed and challenges they faced just living long enough to get to shore and live through the first night are dumbfounding. I was aghast the whole time. It brought to life images for me that I would have never been able to comprehend: how awful it must have been to be stranded there watching your friends die, how did the medics ever have the bravery to run out into open fire to try to save a life, and most poignantly; how lives so young and innocent were never going to be the same- all by the age of eighteen. But in that war at least there had not been a draft.
This leads me to the other war that is so present in my mind when I think of veterans. Here was another insistence where literature influenced my grander education. You know in school you get taught the “facts” about history and wars and your countries place in them. You accept what you are told and can always recite it back, especially when there is a test coming up. A main truth about the Vietnam War is that this is the first and only time troops returning home where not received with love, honor, dignity, or the care they so clearly needed and deserved. It is one thing to hear it, but quite another to read it. For me “Born on the Fourth of July” was a really riveting story and while it is the story of only one man, and one who volunteered to serve, what he goes through is a real eye opener. After reading it for a college course it made me think of the solider who had similar traumas returning home but had been drafted in, for they had never had the chance to make peace with the decision to go in the first place.
Today I watched a special on the Smithsonian channel about the twenty-five year anniversary (it is currently thirty-one years of age) of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It was really touching. It said that it is only second to the White House when it comes to those who visit Washington, D.C. Everyone is moved by it whether or not they know someone who has a name on the wall. That is the best feature- anyone who has died in Vietnam, or from a related injure since, their name will be added in chronological order. The man behind this memorial, Jim Scruggs said that the worst part about loosing so many loved ones in war was that their names would be forgotten. It was this factor that remained key in the design, during the contest in which later Maya Lin won.
When you go visit this memorial, you are moved as the wall appears from the earth and rises toward the sun. It is very powerful. There are many items left by each name from loved ones, fellow veterans, and sometimes-even strangers. Nearby there are two amazing statutes to complete this memorial. One for the dedicated nurses, there are three: one is comforting an ailing man, one looking toward the sky for help, and the third reaching for the fallen helmet. We must not forget the women who made sacrifices as well. The final statute in the area is for the soldiers who stand facing the wall as if looking for their counterparts.
When I last visited D.C. I returned to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It had been some years since I had seen it and I was reduced to tears. There it was between Abe Lincoln who saved our union and the glamorous Washington Monument, which in the right light is breathtaking. Near the Washington Monument there is a W.W. II Memorial that is still on my to-do list. But that day I had to go and see the new Korean War Memorial. It was dedicated on July, 27, 1995 and consists of a granite reflective wall with the images of the faces on men in battle, a reflective pool that lists on it’s outer rim the number of those who died, are missing, and taken hostage. But for me the most incredibly powerful part are the life sized statutes of soldiers dressed in their gear who have all difference stances and expressions and are placed as if we happened to decent in the middle of the war all those years ago. It is something that will shake you to your core. I just couldn’t stop staring and each figure I looked at was more powerful than the last. They are shouting at each other, the fear, the pain, it was all there. Even though they are silent in real life, there are no words needed. It is one of the few times in life I think that is the truth.
The very first sign of Veterans Day to come was on November 11, 1919 when President Woodrow Wilson created Armistice Day to celebrate Word War I. Congress passed the law in 1938 making Armistice Day a legal holiday to reflect and celebrate world peace. Many countries today have some variation of this day. However it was President Dwight Eisenhower expanded on an idea from Congressman Rees from Kansas and signed his bill into law on May 26, 1954 creating our current holiday.
Since this holiday was created many traditions have come and gone. As I alluded to earlier the honor part of this holiday doesn’t always have the respect it deserves. This is why many relatives of the victims of September 11, 2001 do not want that day to become a national holiday. They feel like the mood will change. I do not know if that is the case. I am sure it is different for everyone. But while writing this I did make one connection to the past. Like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the new memorial in New York City has the names of those lives lost engraved on the foot print models (http://thequeenoff-ckingeverything.blogspot.com/2012/04/for-memorial-to-those-we-lost-on-911.html). There is something about rubbing your hand over a name and taking a second to stop and think.
Whether you have known a Vet personally or not is not the important part. Each one is out there dedicating their life, and their family is sacrificing their love one, is a gift and it’s a privilege we should all take at least one day to reflect on. We all owe them a debt of gratitude.
I am sure the reason we don’t like to dwell on the serious side of this holiday is because it is too painful to look the belly of the beast in the eye. To have to confront what either you or your loved ones have faced and what many of our nation’s youth still have to face. When you want to celebrate a hero you need to know what it takes to be one and for me I don’t think it is only because they were a soldier and fought the good fight. For me I have learned recently it is because they were able to come home and fight the good flight to survive it both mentally and physically and create a life for themselves. The true act of bravery is being able to open up old wounds and share them with those who haven’t lived them, thus exposing your weakness and their native.
When the right two people are having this conversation it is among the top exchanges one can have in life. It is a true expression of love and acceptance. It is a learning moment for both participants. You begin to see each other in a different, more expanded light. When you can tell someone your deepest darkest secrets, or someone has trusted you with theirs, you are bonded to the core of your souls. It is incredible and I wish it for everyone on this Veteran’s Day.
Dedicated to my hero, Love your chicken cutlet.
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