Commentary

America’s Greatest Generation: Portrait of Service and Humility

By TOM MEREDITH | May 24, 2017

Growing up I never thought too much about the Memorial Day holiday. Later, when I had a family, it became my favorite holiday, the harbinger of summer fun and relaxation, local town parades where the kids on the Little League baseball and soccer teams were included. It was small-town American fun to watch our kids on the parade route, then meet them at the local park for games and hot dogs.

I had forgotten about the day I found my father’s Bronze Star, awarded to him and most of his unit after the battle of Bastogne. I was 8 or 9 years old when I discovered it. I was full of questions. My father was not very happy I had found it, not angry with me, just not pleased. He dismissed my questions with “It doesn’t mean anything much; everyone got one.”

Forty-eight years later, when my father was hospitalized with a very bad case of pneumonia, I remembered the medal. While my sister and I prepared for the worst we tried to gather items that might be needed. Nowhere could I find his medal or citation, or the badges of recognition used during World War I, combat infantry badge, etc.

I decided to ask him where he kept those things as casually I could. He responded by saying, “I thought you might look for those things so I threw them away. I didn’t do much to earn them anyway.” I was shocked and confused but knew enough to realize that was not the time nor place to discuss the matter.

Although my father made it a point growing up to take me and my friends to see “The Longest Day,” “Patton” and “The Battle of the Bulge” movies, he never discussed much of his experiences in the war although he believed an understanding of the history involved was something everyone should have so we could understand why these events could not be repeated.

Fortunately, my father is still living so my planning for the worst was unfounded six years ago. We still have not discussed his war experiences because it clearly makes him uncomfortable. He has explained his job in the divisional headquarters was to keep the records of the men killed in action and write letters for officers to sign and send to families. Although I am not qualified to know for certain, I think it is a fair guess he has suffered from survivor’s guilt all these years.

As we were planning our daughter’s wedding last year a thought struck me. We would have two veterans in attendance, one from each of the last two great battles of World War II, my father having been in the Battle of the Bulge and my father-in-law, who fought on Okinawa. I thought this worth mentioning in my father of the bride speech, which got a rousing applause from the guests.

Whether they fired a shot in battle or not makes their service no more or less a sacrifice. They both served and returned home to work in business, raise families and live a pleasant suburban life. While thinking along those lines it hit me that this “Greatest Generation” went on to build the country during some of its greatest economic expansion of the 1950s and 1960s. By serving overseas and then coming home and going into business, they had the confidence to know that losing a sales deal or a certain promotion was not something to be truly worried or afraid of. This in turn gave them the ability to take bigger risks to grow businesses and stand up for the greater good in elections.

On Memorial Day we have a lot more to respect than the time spent in the armed forces by generations of our citizens. The accomplishments of those citizens upon their return are to this very day still important to history and beneficial to all of us.

Unfortunately, we do not have a blemish-free record of treating returning veterans with the proper care and understanding they have earned. We are making progress in this area but must continue to be vigilant to ensure their health and safety, as they did ours.

I wish you the time and ability to enjoy the holiday with your family and friends this weekend. I hope that throughout the year we do not forget those who helped make our quality of life possible. If we give a simple thank-you it is a beginning to acknowledging the debt we owe our veterans, for both their service and contributions made afterward.

Tom Meredith lives in Little Egg Harbor.

 

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