Free Markets, Free People

On Veteran’s Day–thank you, America

Forty some odd years ago, as a new lieutenant, I was in charge of a detachment sent to honor a soldier killed in Vietnam at his funeral. We practiced our routine, folding the flag and its presentation for hours the day before. We traveled the next day in civilian cars and clothes. The Army felt we shouldn’t travel in uniform or in government vehicles for fear of an “incident” which were all too common then.

We arrived, changed and reported in to the funeral director. We didn’t know that the young widow hadn’t requested our presence, but instead the funeral home had done so as it routinely did when a service member died or was killed.

We were either roundly ignored or endured hostile stares as we sat in the back of the chapel. At the conclusion of the ceremony, and under intensely cloudy skies, we followed a few cars to the cemetery a short distance away to do our duty. As we approached the burial site, the heavens opened up.

There was no funeral home tent over the grave and, as it turned out, only my detachment got out of our cars and went graveside. There, in the pouring rain, we rendered honors to our fallen comrade.

After receiving the folded flag from the NCOIC of the detachment, I turned toward the car that I knew contained the widow and approached the back window on the side she was sitting. She was staring straight ahead and it seemed I was left to stand there forever. Finally, the driver from the funeral home must have said something because she turned toward me with a sullen stare, rolled the window down part way and snatched the flag from my hands before I could even begin to say what my duty compelled me to say to her. Without another look, she ordered the driver to depart and I was left rendering a hand salute to the tail lights of the few cars that had bothered to attend the service.

That was the Army and nation with which I began my service. It was literally and figuratively one of the blackest days of my time in the military.

But somewhere between then and now a wonderful and miraculous thing happened. A nation that at that time shunned its warriors has since come to embrace them. And I couldn’t be more proud of my country than I am today. Since that awful era, America has come to recognize an important truth – the military is the last organization in this country that wants to fight a war, because they will bear the terrible burden of loss. It has discovered that being in the military is among the most challenging and honorable professions available. And they’ve become proud of not only our military’s accomplishments, but the bravery, sacrifice and compassion of its members.

Where once those in uniform were shunned they now receive standing ovations. Where once protesters stood outside the gates of military establishment with signs calling soldiers “baby killers”, strangers now thank soldiers for their service. Where once few showed up to honor the fallen, now entire towns show up to give them their solemn due.

This hasn’t been the result of some concerted effort on the part of anyone in particular. It is a result of the people of a wonderful country examining their past actions and concluding they were wrong to act the way they did – and doing something about it. It has been as spontaneous and as profound a grass-roots movement as any I’ve witnessed in my lifetime.

I was worried, as we turned to an all volunteer force that America would lose further touch with the military and the gulf separating America from its warriors would widen and worsen. But it hasn’t just been the military that has tried to bridge that gulf – it has been the American people.

Never before – except perhaps WWII – has there been such massive support of our fighting men and women. If it is for the troops, people unhesitatingly give. Random acts of love – anonymous acts in many cases – are routine. I spoke with one soldier in an airport who had been travelling for two days heading home on mid-tour leave from Afghanistan. He said he hadn’t bought his own meal yet and he’d been upgraded to 1st class on every flight he’d taken. Sometimes that upgrade consisted of someone voluntarily giving up their seat for him. A common and wonderful occurrence.

We’ve been at war now for 10 years, longer than any war in American history and the love and support from the American people has never once waivered.

So … as America today says “thank you” to its veterans, this is one vet who wants to say thank you to America. From that dark day 40 years ago to today, you have done what it takes to make me proud of the service I was honored to perform for our country. With the love and support you shower on our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines, you have proven to everyone in the military, to include those from my era, that what you say and do is genuine, heartfelt and driven by pride.

God bless you America – and thank you.

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14 Responses to On Veteran’s Day–thank you, America

  • Amen!

  • Bruce,
    From a new vet (retired 2008), Thank YOU.  I’ve been on funeral detail. I’ve been in a similar, yet, not quite so bad, situation.  That duty was hard.  And you did it well.

  • Fine piece, McQ.  Hope you’re mending well.

  • Bruce,
    Great article…as a Nam Vet 69-70 whose brother served in Desert Storm, and my son just returned from Afghanistan,  Thank You. I vowed when Desert Storm broke out that I would do everything in my power to make sure our current day Warriors would not suffer what we had to experience. Always wanted a bumper snicker that said:
    Vietnam Veteran Proud To Have Served
    Ashamed Only Of The American Congress
    And The Support Of The American People!

  • It is a shame that we had to be shamed into recognizing the import, efforts, and sacrifices of our servicemen and servicewomen.  But it’s good to see the changed attitudes these days.  From a US citizen who enjoys the freedom paid for with the blood, sweat, and tears of its armed forces, thank you.

  • McQ[S]omewhere between then and now a wonderful and miraculous thing happened. A nation that at that time shunned its warriors has since come to embrace them.

    I think that the country has reacted well to a sense of collective shame over the treatment meted out to many Vietnam-era vets.  “Why are we spitting on these men?  Even if you don’t agree that we should have fought the war, you can’t blame the soldiers.  They went through hell and deserve, if not thanks, then at least some courtesy and maybe a little respect.” We’ve also seen over the past several years that the military, while it has its bad apples and makes its blunders, generally is pretty honorable and competent, ESPECIALLY compared to our political class.  Oddly enough, Hollywood, which is pretty anti-military, has done its part: even if “the military” gets rough treatment in movies, the individual American soldier is generally portrayed in a positive light as brave, tough, selfless, and honorable.

    I’m sorry that you got such unwarranted and shabby treatment.  Thank you and the other men for handling a tough situation with the honor and tact that we (happily) expect from American soldiers.

  • A very touching story McQ.  Thanks for sharing.
    I witnessed a group of old WWII vets hand my grandmother a folded flag when my grandfather (Higgins boat pilot, US Navy, Pacific Theater, 1943-1945) died in 1995.
    I was holding on strong during the funeral of my beloved grandfather, but when at the burial they handed my granny the flag – I lost it.  I didn’t know my eyes could produce so many tears.
    Man, the power of that folded flag.  Everything else in comparison seems… beyond petty.
    And Happy Veterans Day.

  • Nobody loves peace more than a soldier

  • It is possible that people today are better informed about not just military service but also more knowledgeable about the peripheral issues. I can’t say that I ever had the experiences of some others when I returned from Vietnam in 1970, such as protests, name calling, etc., but the looks and attitudes of some conveyed anything but respect, even from ‘friends’. Perhaps it was a defensive mechanism, but I didn’t feel I needed their support then and certainly do not now.
    With the passage of 40 years I have noticed some odd developments as well a growing respect for the people who served there as well as the place itself. Vietnam hasbecome a trendy destination for a lot of folks who participated in or supported the anti-war clique, as if the stigma of the region has been cleansed. Several have told me that they found the country beautiful  and the people warm, something I had attempted to describe in the 70’s to no avail. However, they can now say they have been to Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos and deserve their ‘been there’ recognition and in a way, IMHO, some form of redemption.
    The disconnect persists however. Recently at a dinner party we were regaled by a couple who had just returned from SE Asia and I couldn’t resist to mention that I had seen many of those stops 40 years ago. After that registered, our host jumped up, immediately sat down next to me, and  asked ‘you didn’t have to carry a gun, did you’? Since dinner had not been served yet I was polite in my reply.
    Finally there is this factoid. According to the August 2000 census, service in Vietnam has gained such respect that 13 million Americans claimed to have served there. Of course, no more than 3 million actually did, but we’ll take respect wherever available.

  • Bruce,
    What a great article.
    My cousins and my friends served in Vietnam while I partied in college, married and had children.
    Thank you and your fellow servicemen for fighting for peace and for our country.

  • Great story McQ! Stay on the mend.—CONEY