By Tom Still
MADISON – I was on my way to my favorite sandwich shop Monday, the official Veterans’ Day holiday, when I pulled behind a car driving slowly in the right lane. Make that very slowly.
There was an American flag waving on the driver’s side fender and a Wisconsin POW license plate above the back bumper. Inside the car, I could see a driver and a female passenger, their white hair betraying their age.
The couple pulled into the same parking lot and they were still there, making a painfully slow exit from their car, when I returned with my sandwich. “Happy Veterans’ Day!” I said, hoping not to startle them. The elderly man, well into his 80s, gave me a wide and slightly toothless smile.
I don’t know anything else about his story, although the POW plate, the flag and the ancient smile offer clues. This was a veteran, almost certainly, of World War II. He may have spent time – perhaps years – in a prisoner camp under harsh, even brutal, conditions. But he survived and returned home to a nation he loves to this day.
Every day, as filmmaker Ken Burns notes at the end of his documentary, “The War,” a thousand World War II veterans like my grinning friend in the parking lot pass away. They lived through hellish places such as Guadalcanal, Anzio and Iwo Jima, but their time now grows short.
The last living World War I veteran to actually be shipped to France is 106-year-old Frank Buckles of Charles Town, W.Va., the New York Times reported Monday. He has outlived 2 million other American doughboys who made the trip “over there” in 1917 and 1918, but one never knows if this Veterans’ Day will be his last.
Even the veterans of the often-forgotten Korean War and the often-maligned Vietnam War are getting older now. Perhaps they’ll all live to see the day when history concludes that holding the line against Communism when it was on the march was not the defeat some claimed it was.
Still young are the veterans of the Persian Gulf War in 1990 and 1991, and those who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. They, too, may be old men and women before their legacy is fully known, but the nation will be judged by how those veterans are treated now.
There have been too many instances in which the federal health system for service personnel and veterans has fallen short or, at least, appeared to be ill-prepared. There have been long waits for veterans seeking care and backlogs for veterans due pension payments.
There have also been too many reports of reservists and National Guard troops – who left behind jobs that were supposed to be protected while they were at war – encountering hassles from employers upon their return. Fortunately, major Wisconsin companies such as Schneider National, Johnson Controls and GE show up on national rankings of “military-friendly” employers. About 360 state firms of all sizes have won “Patriot” awards from the National Committee for Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve.
While most of us have continued with our daily lives since the unofficial declaration of war on Sept. 11, 2001, those serving in Iraq and Afghanistan have carried a heavy load. Some 4,000 have died, many thousands more have been wounded, and many will return home to uncertain futures.
Americans are divided in their opinions about the war, but they should be united in their support for those who have served. Our sacrifices have been few; theirs have been many. Another Veterans’ Day has come and gone, but the needs of America’s 24 million living veterans are with us every day.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.