Three years ago this month, Jeannie and I were at a large national convention in a swanky hotel in Salt Lake City. The huge ballroom was completely filled with people as the master of ceremonies proposed a toast to all of the war veterans present. He then asked all who had served in World War II to please stand up. A hush fell over the crowd as we all became aware that no one was standing. There was not one World War II veteran among the many hundreds of people there. I was unprepared for that reality. It came as a shock. We are losing that "greatest generation" of war veterans that led and guided our country for more than 50 years.
When I was a boy, I knew several veterans who had served in World War I: Lorenzo Petersen, Leonard Grundvig, and Leonard Allred, to name a few. Those men served in the muddy trenches of the war to end all wars, and they are all gone now.
I know men who fought in Korea; that miserable frozen peninsula where our soldiers faced frostbite and the numberless ranks of the Chinese Army. A "police action," lesser men behind desks have called it. But those who faced the Mongol hordes know better. Thank you, Korean War veterans. I don't think I could have done it.
I look with amazement on the gray hair and wrinkled brows of my own generation: we who fought the Vietnam War and came home to ridicule and indifference. Through the fog of the intervening years, I still see the handsome faces of boys behind the wrinkled smiles of old friends. How young we were when we were sent to the jungles.
My son Rex served in Somalia with the Tenth Mountain Division in 1993. He was among the first to face hostile fire in the international war on terrorism. We know now that Al-Qaeda thugs were testing us in Mogadishu when they initiated the "Blackhawk Down" incident, way back then. Rex and his generation of soldiers are fast approaching middle age. I can scarcely believe it.
I look to our current generation of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines with awed reverence and respect. They are all volunteers, these men and women who offer their bodies, their futures, and their lives to protect us. Never has America had better sons and daughters.
But they are becoming a distinct minority, those among us willing to face the cannons for the sake of principles, ideals, and national honor. We owe them more than we can ever pay. They are the rock our future is built on. Welcome home from Iraq, Sean Woolstenhulme. You make us proud.
And I worry about my grandchildren. What terrors will they face in future wars? What sacrifices might they be forced to bear? Will they fight in the streets of our own cities if we lose the will to meet our enemies in places like Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan? The world is changing fast and the old rules and conventions of war are becoming obsolete. Who knows what the future might bring?
And so, with humility and hat in hand, I ask everyone to honor our veterans this coming weekend. Most of us have no idea the pain and sacrifices our service people and their families endure on our behalf. The least we can do is fly a flag, shake a hand, and remember our soldiers in our prayers.
It breaks my heart that Veterans Day is no longer honored in our schools. It is no wonder that noble concepts like patriotism, self-sacrifice, and the belief that there is something greater than self, are becoming quaint, old-fashioned ideas.
Millions of our friends and neighbors have served valiantly in the armed forces. Many thousands were injured or gave their lives for this country. Their gift is ours now, to do with what we will.