Why remember Veterans’ Day? Why do we honor America’s veterans? Let me explain.
Battle of Britain raging, Winston Churchill often went to an RAF airfield. One day, seeing young aviators exhausted, determined, heroic in their Spitfires, he got silent. “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few,” he finally said. His words echo.
For two decades, including in Iraq and Afghanistan, American service members have battled terrorism successfully. Before that, for 200 years, Americans in uniform protected our nation.
When do we stop to honor them? How many protect us? Today, just 0.4 percent is active duty. Only seven percent have served. To these few, much is owed.
Whether they were in combat or ready, ask about their heart. What led most to this mission? Are veterans willing to fight? Yes. Determined to win? Yes. Appreciate what they defend? Yes.
What else? Veterans have a keen awareness of what responsibility means, doing a job that matters for those at home and beside them. They perfect skills – rifleman to navigator, artillery to intelligence, avionics to administration, fire control to aviation, mountaineering to medic, special operations to chaplain – know what they are doing.
Self-discipline, so rare these days, is their hallmark. They intentionally do what others would not, building mental toughness, learning to endure, persist, prepare, respond, suffer for others.
They practice managing what is within their ability, then increase their ability to manage more, defending this nation. They rise early, continually try to improve, knowing others count on them.
One more thing. For that distant, unthinkable day, they prepare. They prepare to place themselves and their life, as law enforcement does, between you and danger. They put you first.
In the unthinkable moment, some lose limbs, others life itself, many their inner peace – for you. That gift exceeds the power of words to equal; they give it all. To them, we owe our peace.
How many Americans – those teaching at universities, watching sports, opining in studios, cheerfully passing bills and spending money, eating and drinking well – really understand?
How many understand that, even after surviving an unthinkable moment, watching friends go down, not get up, many veterans and relatives who do live … continue suffering for us?
They give you the gift of living a life of knowing, holding hard memories, being written by God into scenes they did not ask or wish for, plan on, or ever want to see or remember, all for you.
That is what so many veterans know, appreciate about each other and freedom, serving others in uniform. They volunteered to pay the price, not knowing how high, for the rest of their lives.
Some wear their commitment lightly, glad for the chance. Some wear it hard, unable to shake what they experienced for your sake. But that is veterans. They volunteer to live with fear, to manage it, triumph over it, put you first. The honor of doing so is their consolation.
Most will never frame it this way because that is not their disposition. Selfless service does not dwell on what might have been, cost of honor. Ribbons, medals, rank, fellowship – yes, part of it.
But none of that erases preparing for the unthinkable, to be your best on your worst day, to live or die on that day, and for some to relive it for years.
That is part of what it is to be a veteran, balancing hope and fear, survival and not, giving without thinking, knowing anything could happen, the self-discipline to do what must be done.
In every conflict, veterans address fear, doubt, uncertainty. Reading the memoir of E. B. Sledge, US Marine known as Sledgehammer, decorated in the Pacific during WWII, one passage hit me.
His book is detailed, can-do, filled with personal humility and positive pride in the Marines – who led and won against long odds, intrepid, undeterred, successful. He is also human.
Humanness – including knowing you are mortal – is what makes the dedication, risk-taking, and service so special, worthy of remembering, honoring, and stopping to understand.
It was a long day, combat fierce on Peleliu, enemy entrenched. Three young Marines sat exhausted, grimy, thirsty, far from home, talking. Fear was managed by a combination of faith, fortitude, confidence, commiserating, wry humor, leadership, and just surviving another day.
Suddenly, someone loudly interrupted their conversation, said: “You will survive this war.” Sledge immediately felt better, putting aside his fears, a day of uncommon suffering.
He looked at his two friends, who remained unmoved. He then looked around, saw no one. Sledge asked, “Did you hear that?” “Hear what?” they responded. He dropped it.
Years later, the memory persisted. Veterans deal with things others do not, and that was one –another reason we honor veterans. They harbor memories, thus protect us in other ways.
Even for those strong of heart, some things never go away. That night stuck with Sledge all his life. He survived the war. Neither friend did, both killed in action.
Every veteran has a story, and part of every story – every single one – is signing up and pride that goes with it, plus what follows, which includes remembering. Honor veterans when you see them. They put their life – the whole thing – up for God’s taking, for you and me.
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