America’s Veterans: Six Ways They Unite Us
'Researching my father's WWII combat experience and his recovery from grievous wounds gave me a new perspective'
It’s been said that our nation’s military is detached from the citizenry it serves. This is not something I previously thought about, although I am a second-generation veteran, and my son and a nephew are currently on active duty. But researching my father’s World War II combat experience and his subsequent recovery from grievous wounds — he is a double amputee and blind — has given me a different perspective.
If my father’s experience is any guide, a veteran’s life is one that embodies unifying, uniquely American themes.
So in addition to a day of remembrance, Veterans Day can also be a celebration of at least six themes that unite us with our military and, more broadly, with our families and fellow citizens — themes I discovered while researching my father’s story and that I hope resonate on this solemn occasion.
1.) Veterans’ stories are our stories. During my father’s two years in Army hospitals, he encountered amazing stories from other wounded soldiers. One was Silvestre Herrera, brought to this country as a child from Mexico — a “dreamer” in today’s parlance. Although not required to serve, Herrera volunteered for service in the U.S. Army and later won the Medal of Honor for bravery in combat.
Even with this honor, my father remembered Herrera as a quiet, humble soldier during their time recovering together while patriotically selling war bonds. There are at least tens of millions of these stories best told as “bottom’s-up” individual histories that add rich panels to the tapestry of America’s story.
2.) Veterans’ stories have transcendent values. Ensign Jesse L. Brown was the U.S. Navy’s first African-American naval aviator. After being taken to an airshow as a kid, he pursued his dream of flying while facing discrimination. Undaunted, Brown worked odd jobs to put himself through college and eventually achieve his goal.
Brown was later shot down over North Korea while covering besieged U.S. troops. Brown’s wingman, Lt. j.g. Thomas Hudner, crash-landed his own plane in the combat zone in a desperate attempt to rescue Brown. Brown was never recovered.
An equally transformative figure was Grace Hopper, a computer pioneer and one of the U.S. Navy’s first female admirals. Unable to enlist because she was too old, Hopper joined the Naval Reserve. Later, because of Hopper’s expertise, she was recalled to active duty at 60 and went on to play a major role in the U.S. Navy’s modernization. Brown’s, Hudner’s and Hopper’s stories exemplify core American values: hope, perseverance, unbreakable camaraderie, and courage to act on a dream.
3.) Veterans’ lives involve more than epic battles. Vivid scenes of battle permeate our literature and movies. But some of the greatest accomplishments by vets were in battles never fought. Think of the 1948-49 Berlin Airlift, when almost two million Berliners — who three years earlier had been our implacable enemies — were saved from a murderous dictatorship by the simple power of food and hope.
Or think of those vets who served during the Cold War and faced down a brutal, hegemonic communist ideology that had zero concept of freedom or rule of law — and that President Ronald Reagan presciently predicted was destined for the “ash heap of history.” What binds these and countless other stories through our history was the notion of serving a great cause to make the world a better place.
4.) Veterans’ post-military service is just as important. Like my father, Sen. Bob Dole was badly wounded in World War II while attempting to rescue another soldier, and later achieved a remarkable record of public service. My father, with the aid of the game-changing G.I. Bill, also went on to a career in public service, during which he was recognized by four U.S. presidents for his work on behalf of those with vision loss.
One comment I heard about my father was that he was twice saved from near-death by divine intervention to make a difference in others’ lives. I believe that. In short, a veteran’s service often starts when he or she sheds the uniform — and ultimately can result in transformative contributions for the greater good.
Had I not researched my father’s story, I never would have known of the connection between us — perhaps the most beautiful of the ties that bind.
5.) Veterans’ families are equally vital. Military service and its aftermath are never a singular endeavor. For every veteran’s story, there is an equally inspiring one of the spouse, partner, sister, brother, mother, father or other relative who was that veteran’s support system.
My mother fulfilled that role for my father — and without her he simply would not have survived.
6.) Veterans’ stories can bind us together. My father’s service experiences and my own were very different. He was a 19-year-old infantryman in the freezing cold of a foxhole, facing barrages of shells and rockets; I was a 23-year-old U.S. Navy officer launching off an aircraft carrier on pitch-black nights to track Soviet submarines during the Cold War. But, what ties those experiences together was being young, perceiving a sense of danger, controlling fear, and serving a great cause. Had I not researched my father’s story, I never would have known of that connection between us — perhaps the most beautiful of the ties that bind.
Veterans Day is a day about celebrating individual stories whose timeless values bind us with those who served and with our fellow citizens, and families.
In preserving these stories, I’ve found that it’s never too early or too late to talk to a vet. Veterans are entering our society every day with experiences that shine light on who we are as a nation. It took me more than 16 years to coax my father to reveal his combat stories. Like many vets, he was reluctant to relive those painful memories. But consider how differently our history may be remembered if his and other stories are not recorded.
Veterans’ stories are being built upon daily, as our servicemen and women face the same threats spawned by timeless progenitors of violence to the human spirit. Their stories will be the strands that bind us together as citizens of this great nation.
Harry E. Wedewer, based in Huntingtown, Maryland, is a retired U.S. Navy commander and author of “The Bravest Guy: A True Story of Overcoming Seemingly Impossible Odds.” His book tells of his father’s combat service in World War II and subsequent career as a state and national leader in assisting those with vision loss.