Hero. It is a word that once meant something special. Today, it is often overused and misused to describe things that are not really that heroic at all. We tend to think of professional athletes, movie stars or pop singers as our heroes. In point of fact, those folks are actually ‘celebrities’. While most of us couldn’t do it, it doesn’t take much real courage to face down a 90 mph fast ball or maintain a brutal concert schedule, especially when you are getting paid really well to do it. Admirable, entertaining.. but not really heroic.
If you look up ‘hero’ in the dictionary, it looks something like this; hero (heer-oh) noun: a man of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his brave deeds and noble qualities. Today, it was my privilege to meet and talk with not one hero, but literally a plane load of them.
My wife Jo Ann and I are in Washington, D.C. on a little vacation trip. Actually, we we are on our way to West Virginia for a birthday party and family visit, but we flew into Washington and decided to spend a day or so doing the tourist thing. The weather has been fabulous, cool and breezy without a hint of a cloud. We have enjoyed the beauty and history of our nation’s capitol. In many ways, this is a town of heroes. They seems to be a monument or memorial to someone or something on every block. Many, if not all of the people honored are, by any definition, heroes. Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and many more. Some of the monuments honor folks most of us have never even heard of.
Yesterday afternoon we took the time to tour Arlington National Cemetery. It is a beautiful place with acres of rolling hills and trees just across the Potomac River on a rise that has a breathtaking view of the city. It also has rows and rows of white headstones in neat, military style rows, marking the graves of those who have served our country since the Civil War. We found graves from the Civil War to those of veterans killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. True heroes for sure.
During our tour, we made our way to the Tomb of the Unknown Solider, where we watched the changing of the guard. It is an amazing thing to see. The crowd falls silent as the approach the tomb, even young children sensing that this is a sacred place. The tomb guards walk their post 24 hours a day, 365 day a year, regardless of weather. To watch the current guards, members of the Army’s 3rd Infantry, you sense that what they do is not as much about ceremony and military precision as it is keeping the faith. By being the physical reminder that the sacrifice of the Unknowns has not been forgotten, they are ensuring the the sacrifice of those who come after will likewise not be forgotten. If you have never experienced it, it is something you need to see at least once in your life.
This morning we made our way to the Mall, with intentions to see the monuments there. We started with the Lincoln Memorial. Then we went next door to the Korean War Memorial. Korea is often referred to as the forgotten war. It even says so on the Memorial. It may be that in America, but not so in Korea. As we made our way to and around the memorial, I began to notice that there were a lot of oriental looking folks around us. Then I noticed three fresh wreaths that had been laid at the memorial, each of then from Korean students or civic groups. Between that and the conversations around me, I put two and two together. While Korea may be the ‘forgotten war’ in America, there are some 50 million people in South Korea who are acutely aware that today they live in a free constitutional republic with a vibrant economy, rather than a closed, totalitarian dictatorship, due to the sacrifices made by American servicemen over 60 years ago.
After that, we moved over the Vietnam Memorial. Black marble panels with the names of over 52,000 Americans who died in Southeast Asia between 1959 and 1975. 52,000 names on a wall, and each of them was someone’s son, brother, husband, father. They came from all over the country. At least one of them was a graduate of Live Oak High School and came from Watson, Louisiana. Douglas Impson was a U.S. Marine and died in Vietnam in 1968. Why does it seem we only honor people after they are gone?
After that we made our way down The Mall to the World War II Memorial. This was a special place for me. This was the memorial that that honored the sacrifice of my Daddy’s generation. Those like my father, who left home, not knowing if they were ever coming back, and went into combat in places around the world. Or like my Daddy’s older brother, Uncle Louis, who did not come back. When the fate of the world literally hung in the balance, they and others like them shouldered a rifle of flew bombers into enemy territory, not to conquer, but to give freedom and end oppression of people they had never met.
Pfc. Robert H. Harrison, 14th Armored Infantry, 1st Armored Division
As we made our way around the memorial, I found the inscriptions for the campaigns Daddy and Uncle Louis were in. My Dad was wounded in the Po Valley in Italy and Uncle Louis was killed during the invasion of Sicily.
Then, I began to notice something different. Not far from where I was standing, I began to notice some old men in wheelchairs. I recognized that they were World War II veterans touring the memorial. It gave me a good feeling knowing they were there.
It is not every day that you get to see genuine heroes anymore.
Then I realized that there were more than just a few of them here. There were dozens. It was a part of the Honor Flight , a program that arranges to fly these veterans to Washington to see their memorial. And it is a great idea. Today’s group was from Chicago.
World War II veterans are becoming an endangered species. When I was a child, one of the last of the baby boomers, it seemed like everybody of my Daddy’s generation was a World War II veteran. Not only my Dad, but 6 of my 10 uncles, and just about everybody else I could think of. 16 million Americans served during World War II. Today, even the youngest of those veterans are 88 or 89 years old. Most are in their 90’s. And they are dying at the rate of over 600 per day. Sadly, it won’t be too many more years until they are all gone.
Maybe that is what made today so special. Here was a group of true heroes, the last of their generation, all in one place. It put pride in my chest and a lump in my throat to be so close to them. It may be the last large group of them I will ever see. Today they are old, bent with age, slow of foot, old men in the twilight of life who don’t all see or hear so well anymore. . But, 70 odd years ago, they fought and bled at places like Sicily, Anzio, Normandy, Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima and Okinawa. They climbed into bombers and flew missions over Dresden, Berlin, Ploesti and Tokyo. They flew fighters and swept German and Japanese planes from the sky. They went down in submarines and manned the guns of the battleships and cruisers. And most of them were not quite 21 years old when they did.
The veterans I met today, and those like them, have been described as “The Greatest Generation” A quote from Tom Brokaw’s book of the same name probably best describes why:
“They answered the call to save the world from the two most powerful and ruthless military machines ever assembled, instruments of conquest in the hands of fascist maniacs. They faced great odds and a late start, but they did not protest. They succeeded on every front … As they now reach the twilight of their adventurous and productive lives, they remain, for the most part, exceptionally modest … In a deep sense they didn’t think that what they were doing was that special, because everyone else was doing it too.
It appeared that there was going to be a ceremony or recognition of some sort, so we stood back to watch. There was a color guard to present the colors.
As we watched, they arranged the veterans in rows, most of them in wheelchairs. It was a sight to see.
The ceremony began and they saluted when the colors passed. Some of them sang when they played the Star Spangled Banner. They bowed their heads for the moment of silence. But, the amazing thing was when the bugler played “Taps”. Not only did they salute smartly and reverently, those that could stood up out of those wheelchairs and came to attention, in honor of their comrades who did not come home.
I was so proud to be among so many bona fide heroes. I have heard it said that a veteran is someone who, at some point in their life, has written a blank check to the United States of America for any amount, up to and including their lives. I was thinking about that today. And about what an honor it was to see them and share this one moment with these extraordinary men. I don’t know what they would have said if they had known what I was thinking, but I could probably guess. They would have said they were not really heroes. Those that didn’t come home were the real heroes. Those that had medals for valor would have said they didn’t do anything special; that everyone had done something extraordinary. That the difference between getting a medal or not was whether an officer was looking when you did. I know that is what they would have said, because I heard my Daddy say the same things many times.
As the ceremony ended, the guides were telling them it was time to get back on the buses. They were getting ready to leave, probably to never return. I knew this was an opportunity I would never have again and could not afford to miss. Before they could all be rolled away, I moved to the group closest to me. I went down the line, shaking each one’s hand, thanking them for their service and letting them know what an honor it was to meet them. I had to. After all, each of them was a man of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his brave deeds and noble qualities. In a word, each one of them was a hero.