Guest blogger Shelley Watkins talks about how her life experiences have shaped her views of the U.S. military and her appreciation of our veterans.
Two days ago, I found myself making an unplanned stop at the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. It was a beautiful fall day, colorful leaves swirling midst the verdigris soldiers, frozen mid-step as they walked across the field of battle. There was an unexpected flash of burnt sienna as an anxious fox scurried through the statues, desperate for sanctuary and finally disappearing under a bush. Does he really have a den in this crowded place, the only being allowed to walk among the statues?
And then it happened….My attention was arrested by the sight of buses parked along the street. These were not ordinary tourist buses disgorging school kids with their iPhones or foreign tourists here to see the sights. No, these vehicles carried a precious cargo on this Veterans Day weekend. These were Honor Flight participants. Dozens of empty wheelchairs were waiting patiently on the curb, a silent testimony that we are quickly losing the eyewitnesses to the battles of Britain and Guadalcanal, Inchon and Pork Chop Hill.
As they made their way up the teeming sidewalk, I was struck by their faces. What were they thinking, these people proudly wearing the hats that said WWII, Korea or Vietnam Veteran? Excitement, anxiety, melancholy? Did their memories flash back to the smell of gunpowder, cold wet mud, exhaustion, pain, boredom broken by the crack of an explosion, dying comrades, terrors they have never forgotten and rarely speak of? Was this trip dredging up old hurts long buried, or was it a moment of great pride? Did they look at the people crowding the memorial and feel honored by their presence? I would like to think so.
I am one of the youngest members of the Vietnam generation, children who grew up watching news reports of a war being lost. We did not fight, but we were impacted nonetheless. The tide on the battle front turned, and public sentiment likewise. There were protests in the streets as politicians tried to defend the effort, then distanced themselves from it when political expediency and facts on the ground made it necessary. There were Hanoi Jane, POW bracelets, Operation Babylift, people desperately clawing up an embassy staircase to freedom as choppers waited and Saigon fell, and the shameful treatment of soldiers returning from war – most of them draftees who had no choice regarding participation.
Baby Boomers found their voices and realized their strength in numbers brought great influence. These are the events that influenced the Boomer mindset on war. Boomer parents have passed this to their children. Keep this in mind as you evaluate political positions regarding war. Politicians of the Greatest Generation have given way to Boomers, a sea change in attitudes toward war and isolation. Now Boomer babies are making their way to positions of power. How does this impact foreign and military policy decisions?
I have always been a bit of a contrarian to some in my generation. Perhaps it was listening to stories of relatives gone off to serve in WWII, one returning so emotionally scarred that he soon committed suicide in the back of his butcher shop. Maybe it was my parents’ stories of everyone “back home” doing their part using ration books, growing victory gardens, working in the plants to make Jeeps, and looking at neighbors’ windows to see if a star was displayed.
It could have been hearing my father and father-in-law’s experiences during the Korean War. It could be the belief that sometimes, someone has to stand up to a bully and defend the defenseless, or maybe it is naiveté regarding the truly horrific nature of war. Whatever the genesis, I have never shared the anti-soldier, anti-war feelings I observed as a child.
Rather, I found myself this day standing in a sea of humanity, thankful tears streaming down my face, transfixed by the proud veterans passing me by. What awe inspiring and terrible stories they could tell! We associate them with daring and courage. It may be that they were indeed young and full of bravado when they left for war, but I think that they soon exemplified the notion that courage is taking action in spite of fear. That is courage worthy of commendation.
And so I say a heartfelt thank you: To those who served in years gone by. To my father, David, and my father-in-law Wayne who served during the Korean War. To the youngest generation of our family who have chosen to serve in the military: Son-in-law Jai and nephews Blake and Brent (all in the U.S. Air Force) and niece Alden in the Marine Reserves. Your service and sacrifice are remembered and appreciated. May you feel honored on this Veterans Day and every day.