Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Veterans Affairs, Part One

Old Glory is raised at sunrise and lowered at sunset daily on this hilltop in southwest Chariton. That’s a 13-foot stalk of corn cultivated by Lee this summer in his garden, now attached to his flagpole.

My neighbor, Lee, will be aboard the next Iowa Honor Flight out of Des Moines in early November, embarked with hundreds of other Iowa veterans on a whirlwind trip to and from Washington, D.C., with a visit to the National World War II Memorial on the National Mall as its principal purpose. How cool is that?

In his 80s now, Lee is a decorated combat veteran of World War II. A Purple Heart Medal is emblazoned on his car’s license plate. Every morning, when the weather is appropriate in accordance with protocol, a U.S. flag goes up the big pole in front of his house and near sunset, it comes down. He walks more often with a cane now, partly in deference to his 80-plus years, but also to a leg wound he’s lived with for more than 60 years.

Lee and Bethel will drive into Des Moines the evening before the flight, then arise for breakfast at 2:30 a.m. He will board a bus from the hotel to the airport at 4:30 a.m. after pre-flight security issues have been dealt with and depart at 6:30 p.m. The big jet will return to Des Moines that night. It makes us youthful 60-year-olds tired just to think about the schedule, but doesn’t seem to faze the veterans.

In case you’re not familiar with the Honor Flight program, it is a nationwide grassroots effort funded by private and corporate donors to offer veterans not otherwise able an opportunity to visit their memorials in the nation’s capital. Naturally, preference is given to senior --- World War II --- veterans, but a terminally ill veteran of Korea or Vietnam also would have priority and would make the trip.


One of the oddities of how we remember things collectively is the fact that the National World War II Memorial is the newest on the Mall, dedicated in 2004. That doesn’t diminish the rightness of either the Vietnam or Korean memorials; it just seems odd --- until you think about it.

Then it dawns that every positive thing we see around us and experience in this year 2009 is a living memorial, directly linked to what’s been called the last good war (those who doubt war ever is “good” might substitute “necessary”) and the sacrifices of what’s been called the greatest generation.

It may be a mistake to over generalize and declare Korean War veterans overlooked and Vietnam veterans, constructively noisy, but I think it is not an overgeneralization to call the greatest generation the quietist --- the least likely to call attention to themselves or to demand recognition. Another reason for the lateness of that national memorial.

The fact that the foundation of what we sometimes call the American way survives at all is directly attributable to guys like Lee who literally put their lives on the line to fight for it, and often laid their young lives down on a battlefield, and to those at home who supported them. Never before, or since, has quite so much been at stake. Thank you!

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