We’ve been publishing the Military Page since Jan. 31. I didn’t know how it would play with our readers, figuring maybe we could get some early interest before things waned. After three months, the pictures of veterans keep coming in. Family members are dropping off treasured photos each week, often including a note telling us how much pride they take in the service of their siblings, most of whom are deceased but still very alive in the memories of the family they left behind.
The whole process has me wondering what it means to be a veteran. Most veterans my age got drafted into the service for the Vietnam War. Others enlisted rather than get drafted. The draft also got a lot of guys during World War II and Korea. Today’s veterans, though, all made their own decision to join up. There is no draft anymore. Today’s soldiers join of their own free will.
The bond that links all veterans is the pride we have, looking back on the time we spent in service of our country. The one thing we all knew, as young soldiers in a foreign country, was that no place in the world could compare with the United States. Certainly that was true of Korea and Vietnam and the Middle East. I imagine the soldiers who marched through Paris in the summer of 1944 might have been impressed with that city. Paris was so amazing even the Germans left its precious architecture intact, at least until the Allies put the pressure on after the Normandy Invasion.
On the whole, though, young soldiers learn quickly to appreciate the beauty of America when they are stuck in some foxhole, eating pre-packaged meals and longing for home. Most veterans truly believe that every teenager in our country should live like a soldier for six months after they turn 18 years of age. Having nothing really makes a young person appreciate all the little things we take for granted while living our lives.
Young men and women who come home from the military tend to look forward in their lives, not back. Vietnam veterans especially did not want to talk about their experiences. I suspect the same is true of Korean War vets. From talking to a dozen or more World War II veterans and their families over these past three months, I’ve developed the sense that most of them just came home and returned to their jobs. They got married, raised their children, and rarely talked about what they had seen – except perhaps with other veterans.
The older veterans reach a point where they start to dwell on their military stint, perhaps because it reminds them of when they were young. It is poignant to listen to an 88-year-old World War II veteran talk about the chaos of war, talking freely at last about what he had seen.
One woman sent me a note two months ago telling the story of her father, a World War II veteran who died in 1985. Here is what she wrote:
“Dad passed in '85 a month after returning from the 40th reunion they had with both the Japanese and the US on Iwo Jima. It was the first time they did it, and have had a few since then. Anyway, one day I googled his name to see what came up, and I found his name listed in a book of letters from guys in WW II. He was at Penn at that time and he, along with many of his fraternity brothers, enlisted. They wrote letters back to a buddy who did the school paper. He in turn assembled all his buddies' letters and published a newsletter to all the guys so they knew what everyone else was up too. In 2001 a book with all the letters was published.
I never knew he did this. If my mom knew she never mentioned it. So there I sat reading letters my dad had written when he was 23 years old. His thoughts on the war, life, girls, along with lots of funny stories. What a wonderful gift.”
That’s a heart-rending story, and not atypical of the feedback we’ve received from surviving family members. Some of the reminiscences make you sad. Others make you laugh. One widow from Woonsocket sent me her late husband’s photo and added, “He was one handsome dude. Hey!”
As you may have heard, this newspaper is going to host a picture-taking session for area veterans on Saturday, May 21. The group photo will appear on the cover of our special Memorial Day section that will be published on May 30. Ironically, May 21 is Armed Forces Day here in the USA so it’s a nice time for veterans to get together for a few minutes and trade stories.
The photo session in Pawtucket will take place at 10 a.m. on Saturday, May 21, at the “Clam Shell” monument in Slater Park, right next to the entrance from Armistice Boulevard, down by Pawtucket Country Club.
The photo session in Woonsocket will take place at 1 p.m. on the same day at the Main Street bridge war memorial, just down the street from The Call’s office.
We’re hoping to draw a crowd of veterans from all eras. It would help if veterans would spread the news around so we get a decent turnout. It will only take 20 minutes for our photographer to set up the photo. Then, if the weather is good, we can mill around and introduce ourselves.
See you there.