This Veteran’s Day I have a bone to pick with Tom Brokaw. In his celebrated book, “The Greatest Generation,” Mr. Brokaw alleges my parents and their canasta club buddies were somehow special. Really? What did this generation do that was so special?
Well, let’s take a brief look at a few of their accomplishments. They ended Adolf Hitler’s reign of death and destruction — they island-hopped all the way across the vast Pacific Ocean into Tokyo Bay — they out-produced all the other countries of the world combined — and in their spare time built a really noisy devise called the atomic bomb.
You bet’cha, my parents’ generation was indeed a generation of greatness. There was, and always will be, something very special about The Greatest Generation. Over a quarter million were killed in combat and over a quarter million were listed as wounded in action. Sadly, many who died remain unknown or forgotten, except by those who visit our national cemeteries, or perhaps by a tourist who may notice a local monument.
Over 250,000 Killed in Action; that is indeed a heartbreaking number, but as cold as this may sound, 250,000 is just a number. It is the veteran who can look beyond the numbers and recognize the fallen as a human being ... a shipmate, a foxhole buddy, your copilot or tail-gunner, the man you trusted to do their job, the man you trusted with your life, a good friend whose dreams of a wife and children and a future were never realized.
Almost as unnoticed as their dead brothers are the remaining survivors of WWII. Most have chosen to remain silent about their experiences on Omaha Beach or Okinawa, in the jungles of Burma, or on a Navy destroyer trying desperately to ward off Japanese Kamikaze attacks. Or perhaps they remember praying they’d live beyond their 25th B-17 mission over Nazi Germany.
It has been and will continue to be my mission to seek out our veterans to offer them an opportunity to tell their story. Their voices are the voices of history; not just the printed words in a history book. Their stories come from broken hearts; not the cold hearts of politicians who never served. Their stories can be trusted, unlike the words of those who lack the courage to wear the uniform.
But “The” Greatest Generation — are they really the veterans of WWII? My father said, “No!”
My father served in WWII for more than three years in the China-Burma-India Theater of Operations. Dad flew over the Hump, better known as the Himalayan Mountain Range. At the end of WWII the Himalayans were littered with the crash sites of hundreds upon hundreds of American cargo planes and their never-to-be recovered crews. But were they “The” Greatest Generation? My Dad still said, “No! No, son, we are not the Greatest Generation. Yours is.”
To which I responded in our typical Southern intellectual reply of, “Do what?”
My generation of baby-boomers, “The” Greatest Generation? Come on, we grew up with window air-conditioning… remember? Shoot, I thought we were rich… we had the first window air conditioner in our neighborhood. Neighbors knocked on our front door all summer long. Then I knew we were rich when we were the first ones in our neighborhood to buy a color television set. Then the neighbors knocked on our front door all year long. And we grew up with those great muscle cars, remember? The Mustangs, the Cameros, the GTOs, or as the Beach Boys sang, a giddy-up, giddy-up, giddy-up 409.
But, my generation of baby-boomers… are we really The Greatest Generation?
My generation fought and died in Vietnam. We won every major battle, only to suffer the indignity of seeing our war lost in the dank hallways of Washington, D.C. When we did come home, many of us were told not to wear our uniforms in public. Many of us endured insults, and many of us, including yours truly, were called baby killers. Yet, for those of us who have lived long enough, we’ve seen our legacy morph from being called baby killers, into being called heroes. We were neither. We were just another generation who answered their call to duty and did the best we could under impossible rules of engagement. What we did and suffered through on the battlefields of Vietnam, and later what we went through after we returned home, is why my father called us “The Greatest Generation.”
My generation, The Greatest Generation? No! And if a family member, even my great-grandchildren, suggested that we were, the answer would still be “No!”
Our aging warriors of WWII are collectively referred to as the “Greatest Generation,” a very hard-earned recognition, but in truth, “Greatest Generations” have existed throughout our history, and they still exist today.
As veterans, we will all face what is called “The Final Inspection.” These men and women of the Greatest Generations have served from Valley Forge to the shores of Tripoli, from the fields of Gettysburg to the fields of Flanders. From Pearl Harbor to Inchon to Khe Sanh. From the Gulf War to the hot sands of Iraq and to the cold mountains of Afghanistan, the Greatest Generations have always been there, always ready to answer their call to duty, always mindful that the next Greatest Generation is only one war away, and perhaps only one battle away before they, too, are called home for their Final Inspection.
The Greatest Generation? Absolutely, it is and always will be, the American veteran.
But are we heroes? No, we are not. OK, then where are the real heroes? One hundred and twenty-five thousand heroes are in one of the 25 American military cemeteries overseas, including a well-kept American cemetery in the heart of Mexico City. Over 94,000 heroes from all our wars are still missing in action or peacefully asleep at the bottom of the sea. At least a few of them have their names carved into monuments all over the world.
The remaining heroes rest in peace in one of our 147 National Cemeteries, including General Robert E. Lee’s confiscated land now called Arlington National Cemetery. Sections include the Global War on Terror, a section for military nurses, Confederate soldiers, and some of the 3,000 former slaves who once farmed the land at Arlington from an area of government homes called Freedmen Village. The cemetery, at present, comprises 639 acres and is the final resting place for over 400,000 individuals, mostly American military personnel.
However, my heroes, all 58,318 of them at last count, are listed on a long black wall in Washington, D.C.
I’m certainly no hero, and if the truth be known, there are no heroes reading this article today. My fellow veterans, you and I know that instead of heroes, we are simply the survivors. We were the lucky ones. We, by the grace of God, made it home.
From the “shot heard around the world” to Shiloh to Saipan to Saigon to Saudi Arabia and to Syria, nearly 2 million American men and women have paid, and continue to pay, the true cost of freedom. It is only through their devotion and sacrifice that our coveted Republic remains free.
You may ask, these veterans, these men and women in uniform; why do they do it? The answer is very simple: They do it for you. So, if you see a veteran, if you know a veteran, simply walk up and say “Thank You,” they have at least earned that.