Some months ago I was invited to speak at a gathering of old soldiers. They were World War II and Korean War veterans, a group from the Wasatch Front who meet often to have lunch and enjoy a few hours of soldierly camaraderie; a band of brothers bound by mutually shared sacrifices, dangers and triumphs.
They were an interesting bunch to talk to. They were polite and respectful as they listened to me talk about military service in Vietnam. For the most part they were reserved, even shy it seemed, when talking about their own experiences, which were substantial, some profound.
There are not many World War II veterans still with us. There were wheelchairs in the audience and several folded walkers and walking sticks leaning against tables and chairs. Their faces were old and wrinkled with graying hair and sagging shoulders, but their eyes burned bright and clear. Those men are proud Americans. American flag pins and branch and unit insignias sparkled from lapels and shirt collars from all over the dining hall. Each table was graced with a small American flag centerpiece.
As a group, veterans are the most patriotic people I know. They have offered everything, including their lives, to their country and that makes America special to them.
To lay such an offering on the altar of patriotism is a burden, but it is also an honor. Most veterans are proud of their service, and they should be.
The man who invited me to speak was shot down over Germany in a B-17 and spent eight months as a prisoner of war. He was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross, but I didn't know that until I read about it in his book. The old veterans are like that. They don't brag and they don't tell stories unless they are asked. To them, they did what was asked of them and what was expected of them and everyone did his duty. What else would a man do?
As they gather now to reminisce, it's amazing to see that they are all equal in rank and the value of their service. Colonels and corporals sit shoulder to shoulder and talk of battles won and friends lost. Fighter pilots, clerks and cooks share stories and photographs, laugh, and pat each other on the back.
It's a joy to be among that group of old war veterans, but there is another batch of veterans we must never forget - those who currently serve, or have recently served, in the Global War on Terror. No other American soldiers have been burdened with the cruel demands placed on our all-volunteer military of today. Today's soldiers endure multiple combat deployments to an assortment of foreign battlefields, year in and year out. Some have served in combat for four or five tours of duty, each tour lasting a year or more. It's a crushing burden to bear, and most of us go about our business without knowing the sacrifices our military people and their families are making. It's embarrassing that so few carry the weight of these armed conflicts around the world while the rest of us spend the day on the beach, unknowing and often not caring.
Why do they do it? I believe it's because they are true patriots in the mold of that greatest generation from the 1940s. They believe in America and they believe she is worth fighting for. We owe them a great debt. Because of their efforts and their sacrifices, our country has been free from a major terror attack for more than twelve years.
Never pass a uniformed member of our armed services on the street without extending a hand and telling them thank you. Winston Churchill said it well when speaking about British pilots during the Battle of Britain in 1940. "Never has so much been owed by so many to so few."