Veterans Day, originally called Armistice Day, began the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1919 when the treaty was signed to end World War I. It honored those who had survived “the war to end all wars.” By 1954, we had fought another world war and a costly conflict in Korea. In order to pay tribute to those veterans, Congress changed the name of the holiday. The date remained the same except for a brief time in the early 1970s when all holidays were on Mondays. Nov.11 is a fitting day to honor all Americans who have served honorably in our armed forces.
I graduated from West Point in 1964, and our entire class soon became combat veterans. About 12 years ago, I invited five of my classmates in the Spokane area to my home for an Army-Navy game. I heard my preteen granddaughter whisper to her friend, “Who are all these old guys?” I asked both of them over to meet the old guys. The first had served one tour in Vietnam , was wounded, then transferred from the Army to the State Department where he served a full career as a diplomat. The second was awarded three Purple Hearts in his two combat tours. He then exited the Army and spent 30 years as an executive with a major corporation.
I had been on the track team with the third. He was a distance runner and won the 2-mile race in the Penn Relays – twice. He had hopes of representing America in the ’64 Olympics, but the Army refused to allow him to go to the trials. They needed him in Vietnam . He was seriously wounded and medically discharged. He recently sold his construction company that provided jobs for over 30 employees. The other two served full careers in the Air Force and had over 500 combat missions between them. We were the lucky ones. Ten percent of our class came home in body bags. Just a bunch of old guys.
At that same Army-Navy party was one of the last survivors of Pearl Harbor. He liked to tell people he was invited to the party as a token representative of the Navy. He was a widower and a member of our church who, over time, had become my friend. I had known him for several years when he showed me some of his old photographs taken aboard a destroyer only days before the Japanese attack. I recognized the background in the pictures, but it wasn’t until I asked that I found out he was one of America’s heroes.
Who are the veterans we honor on Nov. 11? They are the high school shop teacher who dedicated six years as a Marine embassy guard, the town mayor who served as a B-52 crew chief in Vietnam and the high school football players who served honorably in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are your neighbors, your fathers, your sons and your daughters.
I came home from my last Vietnam tour a month after Veterans Day 1970. I was tired of being away from my family and pretty stressed out from what I had seen and experienced. I flew over 300 missions and logged more than 1,000 combat flying hours. I was proud of my service. I felt I had done my part to serve my country and honor my fallen classmates.
I came home to a nation more hostile than I could ever had imagined. I was spit on in SeaTac airport minutes after touching down on American soil. At my new duty station, I was briefed not to wear my uniform off base. It was 10 years before I felt safe in the civilian community. We didn’t have PTSD; we just moved on and went back to work. My nightmares gradually became less frequent and finally went away. I was one of the lucky ones.
Let us never forget that we owe our freedom to those who serve.
Frank Watson is a retired Air Force colonel and longtime resident of Eastern Washington. He has been a freelance columnist for over 20 years.
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