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It almost is embarrassing me to admit that for most of my life Veteran’s Day has been more of an amorphous interruption of the mail and bank schedules that I had to endure than any sort of sanctioned holiday.
School was in session, and there was no paid respite from work. Veteran’s Day was just sort of there, a poor, red-numbered step holiday to its more famous cousin in May, Memorial Day.
This I type with head-shaking sadness, because it’s not as if I haven’t cherished the men and women who have served our country, who took enormous risk and showed indescribable courage to ensure that I could do this typing, be paid for days off and in fact read mail without interruption.
I have known so many who have served from the early days of World War II right through to Iraq Part II, and I respect all they gave and took and endured. I love their stories, and I love the way they carry themselves just a little bit taller and prouder.
One of my grandfathers won a medal in World War I, but he died when I was very small, his legacy continuing in the framed medal my mother keeps in her bedroom.
I have listened and read with rapt interest as my wife’s grandfather has talked about his stint in the war in the Pacific, as our columnist Brig. Gen. Ronald Van Stockum has described in detail the great battles of that time. An uncle was there when Americans first landed on Japanese soil.
I remember the stories of my cousins who fought in Vietnam, reading the letters they exchanged with my grandmother and trying to understand how these mild-mannered men were taking aim with their rifles at another man’s heart, understanding the duty of it all.
I knew boys who went off to fight in Southeast Asia and didn’t return. One was a church mate, another I remember from junior high basketball. I once coached a boy in little league whose father had been shot down and captured by the enemy. No one knew if he would return, though he did.
And more recently I have come to come to understand through the reports from children of friends, coworkers and others the horrors of serendipity in fighting the war on an enemy that doesn’t bother with uniforms and traditional warfare.
So, ever so belatedly and humbly, I offer to you thanks.
Those words are inadequate, the vowels and consonants not quite forming a sentence with the heft and muscle that such a sentiment should carry. I type it over and over, and it just doesn’t seems a weakling against its task.
If I am Stevie-come-lately to this position of avowed support, let me explain for you the newly shined lens through which I examine it.
I stop in my typing and look over my shoulder, and there on a cabinet behind my desk is a framed portrait of a young man in full military dress. He wears the navy blue jacket with red trim and high collar, brass buttons brightly polished, the simple white hat with the familiar gold emblem of the United States Marine Corps atop his head.
He looks back at me with a stern demeanor that belies the boy I once new, his familiar square jaw and blue eyes not sparkling with the impishness of his youth.
He is my son Kevin, and, yes, he is a newly minted Marine.
He will spend this Veteran’s Day in a training facility in California, recently having completed his torturous training in the familiar billets of Parris Island and Camp LeJeune. He is 24 years old, newly married, a father to be in 2010, and he is learning to be a communications specialist. His next stop, around the first of the year, is not yet known, but he has applied himself to training with an enthusiasm and passion previously reserved for bad music and bad comedies.
And I am ever more proud of him. He is my hero.
My own brush with military service mirrored that of millions of other boys of the 1960s. We had a draft lottery, and we knew that if our number came up, Vietnam was a likely landing spot, unless we were extremely lucky.
Not many of us wanted that fate, but we would have accepted it. Conscientious objection on any grounds was not in our DNA, even if trying to annihilate an unknown enemy for reasons that only politicians could appreciate was something not to be totally embraced. We didn’t share the awful motivation of Pearl Harbor or the Holocaust.
I didn’t want to be there unless I was required to be there, as was the case with most guys I knew. Call us cowardly if you want – those of you who volunteered and served have that right – but understand the changed world in which we lived.
On a fall morning in 1971, I was a freshman at college and was dispatched to the campus radio station, where I was a familiar face, to watch the drawing of the draft lottery numbers for those of us who turned 18. I had a list of birthdates of guys on my dormitory floor, and I would follow the AP machine as it spit out the numbers in the order they were drawn.
There, drawn 11th, was my birthday, followed by this number: 237, meaning that boys with 236 other birthdays would be called to service before I would be. My choices in life remained in place.
Now I sit and contemplate the graduation photo of my son and do it with more pride and respect than he ever could imagine. He can hear me say those words, and he will say thanks. He will quickly laugh and tell me a story about an overwrought drill instructor, changing the subject as men sometimes do at such emotional moments.
As a dad, I can look at Kevin’s next assignment with the trepidation. He could be sent into harm’s way or a more sedate outpost still continents away. I don’t know when I’ll see him again, and my chances to talk or type to him are limited.
But I do know this: He volunteered open-eyed for this job, sought it out and pursued it, with bravery and commitment.
And on Veteran’s Day 2009, no man in America feels more proud of his son more than do I.
Good luck, Kevin, and thank you.