Though I am not a veteran, I have great respect and compassion for those who served or are serving our country.
For the past 45 years, I have considered myself fortunate to have veterans share their war-time experiences with me. I have heard numerous opinions, thoughts and coined phrases, both for and against war. One phrase that I have heard time and again: “the greatest generation.”
The greatest generation came of age during the Great Depression and fought in World War II. Born between 1900 and 1927, they persevered through hardship brought on by poor economics. This generation was resilient and became creative to survive when food and necessities were in short supply. Many went without.
Monumental changes came on the coattails of the depression with instability in Europe. WWII broke out and the United States entered the war. People sacrificed to contribute to war-time needs. There was rationing of gasoline, tires and other essentials. Women took the place of men gone to war in the workforce. People from all walks of life reached out to help one another and came together as a country, united to face and conquer evil.
WWII veterans, known as the GI generation, knew hard work, pulled together and were proud of living in the United States. They accomplished remarkable endeavors, overcame insurmountable odds, demonstrated undeniable courage and loyalty and had a can-do attitude. The pivotal points of this war were the battles — Midway, the Bulge, Normandy, Iwo Jima, Nagasaki, Hiroshima and more.
I think of the number of men and women who served and the many lives that were lost in this costly war. After returning home, many had problems adjusting to civilian life. When I say thank you and shake the hand of a WWII veteran, I am shaking the hand of the greatest generation of the era.
U.S. soldiers were shipped to Korea to stop the spread of advancing communism. Much of the war was fought in northern Korea. An epic battle took place in a man-made lake called the Chosin Reservoir, also known as Hell Fire Valley. Soldiers were faced with temperatures of minus 30 degrees. Their rations froze. Rifles wouldn’t fire due to the cold. Grenades would frost up and not function, and artillery rounds had to be recalibrated for accuracy. Crude heaters were made from spent artillery shells or they just poured gas on the ground and lit it and stood around the fire to keep warm. Soldiers considered the cold temperatures and rugged terrain more dangerous than the enemy.
I have heard the Korean War spoke of as the forgotten war. We will never forget the veterans who served in Korea. When saying thank you to a Korean War veteran, I am speaking to the greatest of that generation.
This was an unpopular war that divided our country. Many civilians did not back our soldiers. In Vietnam, soldiers faced overwhelming situations including extreme heat, jungle warfare, rifles that jammed in combat and fighting an enemy who remained hidden from sight. They had difficulty determining friend from foe.
When returning home, instead of a hero’s welcome, they were told not to wear their uniform through the airport. There were no parades or marching banks. In their home country, they were humiliated, spit on and lies were told about them. Feeling rejected and unappreciated, some retreated to remote areas trying to survive thoughts of suicide, post-traumatic stress, drug and alcohol abuse. Many suffered lasting effects of Agent Orange.
Realizing what Vietnam War veterans endured, when I shake their hand and say thank you, I am honoring the greatest of their generation.
Middle East Wars: Desert Storm, Afghanistan, Iraq
While performing military duties, soldiers of these wars suffered from temperatures of 130 degrees. They were in full uniform with chemical gear and gas masks. They lived in tents with no power, no air conditioning or any way to cool down. They fought with insufficient body armor, inadequate reinforcements on military vehicles, machine guns that jammed from the dust and roadside bombs from which many lost limbs and many died. The evacuation of Afghanistan left U.S. citizens behind.
How much more could be could be put on their minds and shoulders? Let us show respect to the veterans of the Middle East wars by shaking their hands and saying thank you, acknowledging they are the greatest of this generation.
Answering the call
From all eras, people have stepped up to answer our country’s call. When soldiers were deployed from each generation, did not all feel sadness and have tears in their eyes when departing from their families? Did not all feel pain, loneliness and fear? Returning home, some suffered from shell shock, later diagnosed as PTSD. Some had depression. Some turned to alcohol and drugs to deal with the dark memories, and some harbored thoughts of suicide.
Was it any different for families of each generation? All suffered loneliness, all feared the unknown future of their soldier and all struggled with hardships and trials.
When asking veterans what they would like America to know about their war-time experience, they reply: “We gave our best for our country.”
After reading this, I hope veterans believe whatever war they served in, they are the greatest of their generation. All veterans are extraordinary people who carried out challenging responsibilities.
For all who wore a military uniform, from my heart, I say: Welcome home, Godspeed and thank you for your service to the United States of America.
John Miller is a public speaker and poet living in Brule.