November 11th is Veterans Day in the United States. This is the day we remember our servicemen and women who have placed their bodies “between their loved homes and the war’s desolation.” This is the day when everyone should buy some poppies from those old guys wearing the funny hats, who hang around at stores and street corners. Buy a few, shake their hands and thank them for their service. Look them in the eye when you do this, and then thank God that your eyes have been spared the horrors that these grey-haired gentlemen have witnessed. They do not know you, but they did it for you.
I am thinking of an elderly man whom I never had the chance to meet, but who was a friend of my father for many decades. Homer lied about his age so he could enlist in the Oklahoma National Guard at 16. Later, when the Army discovered that he had not finished high school, they discharged him so he could complete his education. But then it was December 7th, 1941, and Homer turned right around and went back to his unit. During his five years of service, he fought in Africa, the island of Sicily, mainland Italy, Austria, and Germany. On his first day of combat, his entire regiment was held down by some artillery on the near hillside. Homer and his brother crept up the hillside under cover of darkness, assaulting and killing the 12 to 14 soldiers who were manning the artillery there. He was wounded in this encounter and in many others, but he never sought attention from the medical corps. Homer knew that if he did, they would pull him from the front lines, and he could not desert his friends in the 45th Infantry Division. His last combat was in Munich, fighting room to room and to the last man in SS headquarters. He was awarded both the Silver and Bronze Stars for his actions, but it was only a short time before his death as a very old man that he was finally awarded the Purple Heart for wounds received in combat. You did not know him, but he served to protect your freedom.
I am thinking of my grandfather, Virgil. He was part of the 1st Cavalry, 7th Division, the same in which Custer served. During World War II, this division went island-hopping through the Pacific, liberating civilians from the Japanese. Virgil was called “Pops” by the troops since, at 33, he was by far the oldest one there. He did not need to serve in the military–he had been working for Shell Oil, and jobs in the petroleum industry were just as vital to the war effort as front-line soldiers. Virgil wanted to serve, but he explained to his bosses that he could not care for his family with a private’s pay. Shell told him that they would make up the difference if he wanted to serve, so he went and signed right up. Virgil volunteered for the Navy, but when the final assignment came he was tapped for service in the Army. He was part of the forces that landed on the islands of Leyte and Luzon, in the Philippines. At one point on Luzon Island, Virgil was asked to go and retrieve a wounded soldier. Since he didn’t have his boots on at the time, his friend James Jory jumped up and went instead. James ended up dying on this mission, having gone in my grandfather’s place. Later a telegram arrived at home indicating Virgil was missing and presumed dead, followed shortly by a telegram with the news that he was wounded and in the hospital. He was decorated for his two years of service. You did not know him, but he served to protect your freedom.
I am thinking of my wife’s grandfather, Karl. For many years, all that his family knew about his military experiences was that he had served honorably in World War II. It was not until the early 1980s, when his file was finally declassified, that Karl was free to tell his family that he had served in the 10th Mountain Division. He was part of the elite ski troops, but his most important missions were covert and deep behind enemy lines in Italy and Germany. During one of these missions, he was wounded in the leg; it was later amputated. He remained reticent to discuss most of his service to the end of his days; he died a month before Veterans Day 2004. While he was most likely worthy of being decorated, he did not seek for any medals. If you had visited his study, you would immediately have noticed his love of sailing ships, books, and family photographs, but there was nothing on display to indicate that he even served in the military. Those were memories he would rather have forgotten. You did not know him, but he served to protect your freedom.
I am thinking of my father, Bob. He had a love of flying from his earliest days, and this propelled him into a career in the Air Force. I grew up with the knowledge that the only good pilots were fighter pilots, and I was glad to hear the sonic booms of fast-flying planes. That one could be my Dad’s plane! Shortly after completing his training for the F-4, he was called to serve away from home. His squadron was based in Thailand, but his flights took him over Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. On Bob’s twenty-third mission, his plane was shot up on the way to his bombing run, as was another F-4. After completing their bombing runs, the two planes headed back to base, looking for refueling tankers and safety. Bob’s airplane was leaking fuel badly and shortly would have flamed out over hostile territory. The pilot of the other F-4, Bob Pardo, suggested an untried feat that would later be known as
Pardo’s Push. Pardo managed to push the other damaged fighter jet for over ten minutes. He succeeded in pushing Bob’s airplane out of Vietnam airspace and into Laos. The four airmen ejected from their damaged, failing planes, and were picked up by a trained rescue crew. After recovering from his wounds from this mission, my father went back to complete one hundred missions. Bob, and the other three pilots involved in Pardo’s Push, were eventually awarded the Silver Star. You do not know him, but he served to protect your freedom
So today, when you see someone standing by the grocery store holding out some plastic poppies, shake that hero’s hand and thank him with all your heart for the service he gave so you could be free. And buy a poppy, and remember why they sell them today.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place, and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, Canadian Army