For me Veterans’ Day 2016 will be my 83rd, although I still prefer to call it Remembrance Day as they do in Canada and some other British Commonwealth countries. The first “Armistice Day” of my firm memory was in 1937, when I learned that the men with white beards riding in the big open cars had fought at Gettysburg and Bull Run for Abraham Lincoln.
Many folks even today do not understand that this particular national holiday serves a distinctly different purpose than Memorial Day which is primarily to honor those who died in service to their country. Veterans’ Day is to thank those living veterans who served our country. One reason I routinely and proudly wear my cap outfitted with symbols of my military story is to give citizens the opportunity to say “thank you” - a small service I can perform – an opportunity which makes both of us feel good.
Days ago a young mother with a three-year old boy in tow called out to me “Sir! Sir!” as it looked as if I hadn’t seen him.”My son wants to thank you!” Sure enough, the anxious and eager young guy proudly extended a hand. So impressed was I that I dropped to his level to warmly welcome his grip. He really was very sincere and serious and I was touched. As I rose again I felt another hand on my sleeve. It was a much younger sister reaching out from where she clung to her mother’s nesting arm. With pleading eyes she begged for the same greeting. As I pressed her tiny hand to mine the mother whispered an emotional thank you of her own in my ear. I rejoiced silently that I lived in a place such as this where families like this one were raising children who would not be apt to forget to express thanksgiving at such moments.
Most Veterans’ Days I spend some time in my dress ‘blues’ at Memorial Square in Cedar City under the flapping flags where I close my eyes; and remember:
A week after the signing of the Korean armistice in July of 1953, the exchange of POWs – known as Operation Big Switch by the Allies – began at a place called Munsan-ni near a radar control detachment my Air Force unit operated on the Imjin River where some of the last battles of the three-year war took place; a war in which more casualties were sustained in so short a time than in any conflict since the American Civil War. We called the place Freedom Village where a long bridge over a ravine marked the separation between the two sides. It became known as Freedom Bridge. Over it the released
prisoners passed, first the communists heading north, well-fed, healthy and noisy with insolence and bravado. Then came the Americans, thin, skeleton-like and emaciated, quietly helping each other across to where a welcoming gathering of U.S. troops waited behind a military band and color guard.
Last came a lone G.I., struggling even to walk, finally dropping to his knees. A big Military Police officer left the waiting ranks to give assistance, but the prisoner motioned him away clearly wishing to continue on his own, crawling painfully toward the flag bearer on all four. Seeing what was wanted the trooper lowered the red, white and blue banner. A hush fell over the small crowd as the G.I. with tears streaming from his eyes reached up pulling the flag to his face amid convulsive weeping. The MP Lieutenant finally took over, lifting the skinny kid to his shoulders and carrying him to waiting staff as the crowd watched in stunned silence, not a dry unmoved face in the crowd. Those watching and those who heard the story would never forget the experience.
When veterans meet each other what passes across their hands and between their eyes conveys a sense of shared pride that swells the heart but is difficult to describe. Here Al is embraced by a Viet Nam and a Gulf War veteran while traveling in Georgia