Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Veterans' Day at the Y

  Sporting my red white and blue sweater, I swept into the gym at my local YMCA.  I was there to help with the annual Veterans’ Day breakfast hosted by our Y.  With over 100 Veterans in attendance, we had a lot to do.   I sang patriotic songs this year, which was a first for me, hopefully not the last.  I’m waiting to see if they ask me back.  After my Veterans’ Day singing debut, I filled my plate with sumptuous breakfast items, and sat at a table full of people.  I introduced myself to the gentleman across the table from me.  He told me that ne was a WWII Air force veteran.  He was a gunner in an air craft that flew in combat over Europe.  He sported his WWII ball cap proudly, and his stories were regaled with enthusiasm, without hesitation. I then turned to my left and asked the man sitting next to me if he was a Veteran too?  He said that he was, although there was no hat sitting atop his head.  I asked him in which war he had served.  I was guessing Vietnam or Desert Storm, because of his age.  He said that he was in Vietnam.  I asked him what branch he had served in, and where he had served.  Getting that information out of him took all of the finesse of my inner Barbara Walters.  I said that it was interesting to me that most everyone here today are WWII veterans, or Veterans of the Korean War.  He said that it wasn’t unusual.  He told me that relatively speaking Vietnam vets don’t participate in Veterans’ Day events like WWII veterans, and more recent veterans do.  He told me that many Vietnam vets, for the most part don’t publically acknowledge their role in “that” war. It wasn’t said with menace or bitterness, but stated with a bit of sadness, a mere fact.  I asked him if it was hard for him, coming home after serving his 13 months in Nam.  “It’s different today” he said. “I was in the airport last month waiting at the gate for my flight.  Two servicemen got off the plane that had just landed, and people started clapping as they were walking into the airport.  There were cheers and people thanking them for their service.”  He then recounted that after he got off the plane, coming home from Nam, he literally ran to the bathroom to take off his uniform.   He told me of incidents of being spit on and being called “baby killer” by his fellow Americans.   His words again were not hostile or venomous, but matter of fact.  I asked him if he had been drafted.  “The majority of us were” he said, “me included.”  I felt hot angry tears spring to my eyes, and a lump in my throat start to form.  I remember the Vietnam War.  I remember that one of my sister’s high school friends had been killed in Vietnam in 1968.  I don’t remember hearing about what a war hero he was. I remember crowing my anti-war sentiments loud and long to my parents, and feeling pretty good about hating the Vietnam War.  But as I sat talking to this man, a veteran who would rather have not been a veteran at all, I began to understand the word “service”.  It really doesn’t matter what I think about the war.  It doesn’t matter if I believe we should be in Iraq or Afghanistan.   The fact of the matter is we are there, and thousands of men and women are exchanging their lives for service to our country.  As I looked around at the “old guys” smiling and laughing, I turned to the guy next to me and asked “do you think we’ve learned?   Have we grown up a little as a country?”   He shrugged his shoulders, “Oh I don’t know.  But I will tell you this, I was one of the people clapping for those servicemen getting off of the plane, and it helped me some too, knowing that civilians appreciate the risks these soldiers are taking.”    He added that he wished he would have never been ashamed of his uniform.  I looked him in the eye and told him that there were many people in this country who had a lot more to be ashamed of, than he did!    I told him how honored I felt getting to share breakfast with him.  I told him that I hoped he would come next year, and allow us to honor him and his service to our country.  We got up, hugged, and together thanked each other for very different reasons.  As I left that breakfast I felt somber and a little emotional.  I looked across the street at Ft. Logan National Cemetery.  I whispered heartfelt thanks into the air to all of those fallen soldiers, each one a hero regardless of which war they fought or where they lost their lives.  Next Veterans’ Day, I will (hopefully) sing patriotic songs, and get to share my breakfast with another amazing Veteran, another hero.