Forty some odd years ago, as a new lieutenant, I was in charge of a detachment sent to honor a soldier killed in Vietnam at his funeral. We practiced our routine, folding the flag and its presentation for hours the day before. We traveled the next day in civilian cars and clothes. The Army felt we shouldn’t travel in uniform or in government vehicles for fear of an “incident” which were all too common then.
We arrived, changed and reported in to the funeral director. We didn’t know that the young widow hadn’t requested our presence, but instead the funeral home had done so as it routinely did when a service member died or was killed.
We were either roundly ignored or endured hostile stares as we sat in the back of the chapel. At the conclusion of the ceremony, and under intensely cloudy skies, we followed a few cars to the cemetery a short distance away to do our duty. As we approached the burial site, the heavens opened up.
There was no funeral home tent over the grave and, as it turned out, only my detachment got out of our cars and went graveside. There, in the pouring rain, we rendered honors to our fallen comrade.
After receiving the folded flag from the NCOIC of the detachment, I turned toward the car that I knew contained the widow and approached the back window on the side she was sitting. She was staring straight ahead and it seemed I was left to stand there forever. Finally, the driver from the funeral home must have said something because she turned toward me with a sullen stare, rolled the window down part way and snatched the flag from my hands before I could even begin to say what my duty compelled me to say to her. Without another look, she ordered the driver to depart and I was left rendering a hand salute to the tail lights of the few cars that had bothered to attend the service.
That was the Army and nation with which I began my service. It was literally and figuratively one of the blackest days of my time in the military.
But somewhere between then and now a wonderful and miraculous thing happened. A nation that at that time shunned its warriors has since come to embrace them. And I couldn’t be more proud of my country than I am today. Since that awful era, America has come to recognize an important truth – the military is the last organization in this country that wants to fight a war, because they will bear the terrible burden of loss. It has discovered that being in the military is among the most challenging and honorable professions available. And they’ve become proud of not only our military’s accomplishments, but the bravery, sacrifice and compassion of its members.
Where once those in uniform were shunned they now receive standing ovations. Where once protesters stood outside the gates of military establishment with signs calling soldiers “baby killers”, strangers now thank soldiers for their service. Where once few showed up to honor the fallen, now entire towns show up to give them their solemn due.
This hasn’t been the result of some concerted effort on the part of anyone in particular. It is a result of the people of a wonderful country examining their past actions and concluding they were wrong to act the way they did – and doing something about it. It has been as spontaneous and as profound a grass-roots movement as any I’ve witnessed in my lifetime.
I was worried, as we turned to an all volunteer force that America would lose further touch with the military and the gulf separating America from its warriors would widen and worsen. But it hasn’t just been the military that has tried to bridge that gulf – it has been the American people.
Never before – except perhaps WWII – has there been such massive support of our fighting men and women. If it is for the troops, people unhesitatingly give. Random acts of love – anonymous acts in many cases – are routine. I spoke with one soldier in an airport who had been travelling for two days heading home on mid-tour leave from Afghanistan. He said he hadn’t bought his own meal yet and he’d been upgraded to 1st class on every flight he’d taken. Sometimes that upgrade consisted of someone voluntarily giving up their seat for him. A common and wonderful occurrence.
We’ve been at war now for 10 years, longer than any war in American history and the love and support from the American people has never once waivered.
So … as America today says “thank you” to its veterans, this is one vet who wants to say thank you to America. From that dark day 40 years ago to today, you have done what it takes to make me proud of the service I was honored to perform for our country. With the love and support you shower on our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines, you have proven to everyone in the military, to include those from my era, that what you say and do is genuine, heartfelt and driven by pride.
God bless you America – and thank you.