Monday, November 12, 2012

Let's not forget our debt to vets

FOR THE PAST dozen or so years, no matter where I'm working, at half past noon on Nov. 11 I can be found at Front and Spruce streets in Center City, the site of the Philadelphia Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
And every year as I stand on the grass directly behind the curved, charcoal-gray wall, I'm always struck by a combination of reverence and awe while watching the older generation of soldiers facing forward during the annual Veterans Day observance, their jackets boldly proclaiming the names and emblems of the military branches in which they served our country.
The ceremony is always the same: various elected officials, a congressman or councilperson - but always the mayor - offer words of praise and thanks. There's always a special guest speaker (last year it was Municipal Judge Patrick Dugan) and an honor guard of khakied, aging warriors, standing with stoic dignity while bearing colorful flags. The rifle team's 21-gun salute pierces the crisp fall air, followed by the traditional, somber "Taps."
The touching moments are the same, too, as the once-young men, humbled by passing decades and graying hair, greet each other with affectionate smiles, hugging like long-lost brothers. Gold Star moms, easily identifiable by their gold-rimmed white caps signifying a son lost in battle, totter about the amphitheater on canes, in bereaved solitude.
But what's also the same is the absence of men and women like me in their 40s and 50s who have been largely untouched directly by the loss and horror of armed conflict.
We late- and post-baby boomers - those who have and have not served - owe a debt to these veterans as Vietnam, the only war this nation has ever lost, was America's last innocent war.
Because of Vietnam, never again would our political leaders be issued a blank check to cast America's finest unabated and without question into harm's way. Because of Vietnam, whose veterans were denied a welcoming parade of thanks, never again would our soldiers in uniform be greeted with scorn and contempt upon arrival back home.
And yet, last year, among the 200 or so gathered to pay tribute to those who gave the ultimate sacrifice, the absence of middle-aged adults - or anyone under 30 - was as dismaying as it was obvious.
Along with the names of the 646 Philadelphians etched into the memorial's polished granite walls is the motto, "It is our duty to remember," a lesson apparently not imparted on the post-Vietnam generations who ignore - or, most noticeably, teens who ignominiously skateboard around or vandalize - what should be exalted ground.
In his last official appearance before Congress concluding his 52 years of service to the nation, Gen. Douglas MacArthur quoted the refrain of a military ballad, declaring, "Old soldiers never die, they just fade away."
Let's hope we render those words untrue for the Vietnam veteran. They, and all our veterans, deserve so much more from the rest of us.

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