All across our Great Nation today, grateful Americans will gather to honor the brave men and women who have served in our Armed Forces. With majestic parades, offers of free meals, shopping discounts and a variety of other gestures of gratitude; today is the day we take pause to say “Thank You” to all who have served and are serving in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard.
For those who serve, the sacrifices they make are countless. Most enter their military career when they are young and in the prime of their life. Full of youth and exuberance, these young men and women put the ideals of Freedom and Country ahead of their own hopes and dreams. They endure rigorous training, enduring near-abusive drills and instructions designed to sharpen their minds and prepare them for the call of duty.
They left behind their innocence when they donned their first duty uniform and became a hero.
Many years ago, I had the unexpected opportunity to be a part of a volunteer group working on New Year’s Eve at Rein Mein Air Force Base in Germany. It was 1990 and we were in the midst of the build-up to the first Gulf War in Iraq. Rein Mein AFB was the refueling stop for all U.S. troops; soldiers and airmen had several hours on the stop to eat, sleep, shop for incidentals and make phone calls home. This volunteer tent was the only authorized facility that they were permitted to go and accomplish all of their needed tasks.
My evening was not as planned. I had gone to Frankfurt to visit my brother and was planning to meet my then-boyfriend – who was also in Germany visiting his family – for a day of shopping and to take a train to Munich to ring in the New Year. Our day got off to a rocky start and we ended up having a very posh break-up over an espresso at an outdoor café somewhere in Bockenheim. So much for my big New Year’s Eve…or so I thought!
My very wise older brother invited me to join his family at the Tent City outreach his church had volunteered for. What I thought would be a complete bust, turned out to be – to this day – the most memorable New Year’s Eve of my life! For eight straight hours, we made sandwiches and coffee, folded blankets, helped young men and women make phone calls home and sorted through donated toiletries, books and snacks to create a make-shift store for incoming troops. We organized, cooked and cleaned for hours.
But most importantly, we listened.
I will never forget the sight of some of the young men and women who came through that tent. Largely comprised of Guard and Reserve units, many were mentally unprepared for the battle ahead. One young female soldier, in particular, walked through the tent with her teddy bear clutched under her arm, visibly weeping. A young college student who had enlisted in the National Guard to defray her education costs, she did not anticipate the reality of the war she was about to face. I sat and talked with her, prayed with her and gave her some encouragement.
Another Marine came through the door looking like he was straight from central casting. The perfect picture of combat-readiness, he was chomping at the bit to get “in-country.” He was ready for a fight and frustrated that the lay-over in Germany was so long. His fierce demeanor and anxiousness for the war to begin had artificially aged him; he was only a few years older than me. Unlike his fellow comrades, he did not sleep, read or take time to relax; his nervousness and anxiety made him like a caged tiger. I talked with him, too, and realized this mask he wore was his attempt to hide his own fears and uncertainty about what lie ahead. As he left, I offered to pray with him and I wonder, to this day, what happened to him.
These men and women – just examples of the millions – who have given up their young lives to serve and fight for freedom, are the real heroes. They give so much more than time to protect and serve. Their youth and innocence are forever lost. They rose to a noble purpose and returned to their civilian life forever and completely changed. Their views of life, liberty, society, equality, freedom, etc., can never return to what it once was. They left as young men and women and returned as heroes.
Today’s Veteran’s deserve more than one day set aside to honor and say thank you. Every day needs to be a day where we remember and pay homage to those who have paved the road of freedom and liberty. As a Nation, we must make the issues that today’s Veteran’s face a national priority. No one can deny the statistics of homelessness, drug addiction, joblessness, suicide and other mental health issues that our returning military and aging Veterans face. It should be unacceptable to every American that we care better for illegal aliens than our own military heroes.
I don’t like to use my blog for political reasons and that isn’t my intent here. But I will simply say that all of us – myself included – need to open our eyes to the issues our Veterans face. All around us are heroes in need. Simple gestures and acts of kindness are needed to honor and pay our respect to those who have sacrificed greatly for us all. And it needs to be more than just one day a year.
Yes, as the saying goes: real heroes do wear dog tags.
Happy Veteran’s Day!