We are losing our WWII veterans at a rate of more than 300 a day; they walk among us for only a limited time. Of 16 million Americans who saw combat in WWII, only 5 percent remain among us. That creates a sense of urgency or at least time-sensitivity, on several fronts.
During WWII, more than 290,000 American military service members died in combat. Another 670,000 were officially wounded, came home. Many returned however with invisible wounds, deep emotional scars, and irrepressible memories. Most spoke nothing of them.
These boys – for they were mostly boys – took up arms to defend America, this Nation under God, which they hoped to be forever “indivisible.” They rose to repel an existential threat, inveterate evil. They did not go eagerly, but because they had to. As one veteran of Anzio, a former First Scout who won the Bronze Star for valor recently told me, “we went because we had to go; it was the end of the world.”
We are their beneficiaries, every one of us. So, think about the present. What does their gift mean? For starters, it places an enormous burden on us. We cannot wish the burden on others.
At least three obligations come from what they did for us.
First, we owe it to them to know what they did. So take time from 24-hour news and electronics to re-read history, remember their extraordinary courage, the gut-wrenching sacrifices and their example in combat and back home.
While you can, take time to visit a single WWII veteran, tell him “thank you,” ask about memories, then be patient and listen hard. Some will want to speak, perhaps for the first time, others will not.
Those who returned never believed they were heroes, no matter how many medals. Heroes did not come home – from Sicily, Normandy, Anzio, Bastogne, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, the Solomon Islands, and a thousand other places. Those were heroes. The WWII veterans spoke little, because they lived.
From World War II to present, America’s combat veterans saw, did and will never forget things most Americans never know, and can hardly imagine. Accordingly, they have protected us twice, once going away, then on return by saying little of what they saw and did.
As years pass, the time comes when some combat veterans want a listening ear. Our obligation is to stop and offer that ear. Were we they, we would welcome the unhurried visitor – thoughtful, unjudging, interested, maybe even consoling. That is why we must visit. For the WWII veterans, time is short.
Second, we must struggle to be “equal to our time,” equal to their gift. This means understanding what they did, selfless service for country. They truly set the standard. As the Bible teaches, there is no higher good than that a man should give his life for another. They all took that risk, for us.
In practical terms, being “equal to” their gift may be impossible, but we must listen for “better angels,” to our conscience, as Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan advised, then courageously act on what our conscience counsels, which may be the least appealing option.
This is hard, as it might be serving others in a thousand different ways, military career to priesthood, helping others raise a family, tend a town, cure a disease, teach with compassion, learn to read, research an answer, write a book, stay patient with modern impatience, parent or simply be ready to risk all if the moment arises.
Being “equal to our time,” requires being ready to act when those “better angels” point the way, when our conscience says, be there for others now. Often the time is patently inconvenient – but what is more inconvenient than going to war, leaving family behind, in some cases never returning, for another. And that, recall, is what they did for us.
Third obligation? Just remember what these men fought for. For their buddies, sweethearts, and families, but also their country, honor and a place we call America. The principles have not changed. They must not, nor our commitment to each other who abide them.
That means, above all, treasure what they laid down their lives to defend – this home of the brave, land of the free, Nation under God indivisible. They expected of us maturity, fidelity and determination to keep alive what they risked their lives – and many lost their lives – to preserve. They ask us to preserve this unified nation, centered on individual liberty and the goodness that flows from such liberty.
Think about visiting an aging WWII veteran. They set the standard. Let them know you know. These visits have reminded me that history is not about books, but about lives lived with personal courage, quiet gifts given, blood shed, friends lost, choices made that only God sees, and selfless service to others, most of which is forgotten – but not all.
The Greatest Generation, that extraordinary, stoic collection of Americans who embody this country’s greatness, remain among us. While they do, take time to let them know we understand and will carry forward their commitment to freedom, compassion, selflessness and what they fought for. We can do no more, we should do no less.
Author’s Note – That is why I just wrote “Eagles and Evergreens” (North Country Press, 2018), also available on Amazon, which pays homage to WWII veterans in a small Maine town and the values these veterans passed forward: hard work and purposeful risk-taking, and the love of family, faith, and country.