(Below is the full version of what I wanted to write about Veterans Day. I also wrote a short version that was published in the Statesman Journal that can be found here.)
By Ted Werth
As I approached my office on a sunny morning in September, I caught the movement of falling leaves. As I turned to look across the street I paused mid-step and felt sadness. The handful of small, bright yellow leaves floating through the air framed, all too perfectly, the statue of the kneeling soldier. Behind the soldier is a wall. A wall with the 113 names of those Oregon soldiers, Marines, airman and sailors who made the ultimate sacrifice for their county in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was as if each of the small, gently falling leaves represented a name on that wall. I was sad for the lost lives and the potential they represented; sad for the families who live with a personal loss the rest of us can never fully understand. Later, I felt sadness for the many that seem to forget all too soon the sacrifices made daily on behalf of this great country.
You see, it is easy to get motivated in the middle of a crisis like 9/11. But less so once things have calmed down and the threats seem to have gone away. For us, life goes on, but the threats never really go away. We are tempted to pretend they do. There are still those that would like nothing better than to harm us. Politicians debate the war and the appropriate war strategies. Those who volunteer live day to day. Not knowing when they will be called on to step into harms way. Not knowing when violence might strike. Veterans Day is a day to remember those who have, and are, protecting us.
I grew up in the Vietnam War era. Aside from my original 1964 GI Joe Action Figure, my first recollection of soldiers came from a letter I received from a soldier in Vietnam. Our 3rd grade class had written letters of encouragement to random names of those serving. I have no recollection of what I wrote, but for whatever reason, I was the only one to receive a letter. At that point the war, although I didn’t really understand it, became personal. It would soon become even more so as my older brother sailed up and down the rivers of Vietnam delivering Marines to the front lines.
Radio was big back in the 1960’s. We didn’t have iPods, CD’s or even cassettes. Record players were not so portable so we mostly listened to the radio. It was somewhere along here that I heard the song “Green Berets” by Barry Sadler. I was alone in the room I shared with my younger brother. It was a sunny day, probably a Saturday. Before this I had shared a room with my older brother who was now overseas. We used to listen to the radio as we relaxed in our beds before going to sleep. A few years later, I listened as the words came from that same radio:
He has died for those oppressed, leaving her this last request
Put silver wings on my son’s chest, make him one of America’s best
He’ll be a man they’ll test one day, have him win the Green Beret”
It left me thinking about the soldier who wrote to me; how was he doing? I wondered about my brother. We waited patiently for his letters;. There were no cell phones or email back then. Near my home was a war memorial at a city park. It listed the names of local men and women serving in Vietnam. I knew right where my brother’s name was; I wondered about the others.
It wasn’t long after this that Tim Ownbey, a friend of our family, gave the ultimate sacrifice. I vaguely remember the funeral. Mostly I remember the sadness and hurt that his Mom carried. His name too is on a wall. The wall in Washington DC.
In January 1991 my family watched, like millions across America, as explosions captured by night-vision cameras appeared on our TV screen. It was the start of the first war in Iraq. Most of America under age fifty had never seen a war like this. It turned out to be a short conflict that ended with the Iraqi Army hightailing it out of Kuwait. But beforehand there was a level of anxiety about how well we would do. There were many unknowns. As we continued to watch the TV that evening, my almost 4 year old daughter asked me “why are we fighting?” Attempting to put war in context for a four year old requires a certain simplicity. I told her that there was a group of people who lived next door to Saddam Hussain’s country and that one day Saddam decided he wanted what they had. So he sent his army in and took everything for himself. A slight scowl came across her face as she contemplated this. A few moments later she declared “Saddam is a bad man.” I think it made it personal for my daughter that day. She now serves in the U.S. Marine Corps at Twentynine Palms, CA. As you can understand, Veterans Day is once again very personal for me.
Recently I read about the death of another Oregon soldier. I found myself thinking of the wall across the street. Thinking that one day soon, workers will arrive to inscribe another name in the granite memorial. Several times a month I take a walk through the various memorials to wars current and past. I always pause at “the wall” and read several of the names; then I say a prayer for those families. I don’t know their circumstances or history. I do know that their life is less complete, and that we owe them a debt of gratitude, along with the assurance that we will not forget.
It is fitting that we honor our Veterans at least once a year. It helps us to remember their personal sacrifice; it keeps things personal for us. On this day it is also appropriate for us to put aside our differences to say thanks to all that have served; each and every individual.
I went out during lunch that September day and picked up one of those leaves. I have it pinned to my wall. It helps to remind me to say a prayer, not only for my daughter, but also for all the other brave men and women that keep us safe.