By Kerry O’Connell, MontanaHistorian.com
“Thank you for your service.” That is the phrase that comes to mind when you see someone in a military uniform. They are merely words that we are conditioned to say. Are words truly enough? How exactly do we respect our veterans, offer them an understanding of what they went through during their tenure in the military? Veterans Day originated 101 years ago to honor all the men and women who have served and some of us still struggle with a heartfelt way to show appreciation.
Starting out as Armistice Day in 1919, it was proposed to commemorate the first anniversary of the end of World War I, also known as “The War to End All Wars.” The bloody battles of The First War ended in 1918 on the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.” It wasn’t until 1926 that Congress passed a resolution for November 11th to become an annual observance. In 1938, Armistice Day became a national holiday and in 1954 President Eisenhower officially changed the name to Veterans Day. Except for a few years in the 1970s, the holiday has always been celebrated on November 11th.
As opposed to Memorial Day which specifically honors those who have died serving our country, Veterans Day honors all veterans either living or dead. It has evolved into a day to give thanks particularly to living veterans who served honorably during times of war or of peace. The times of war are particularly remembered during Veterans Day and television often plays patriotic war movies all day long. Movies can often be a way of fostering an understanding of an experience that is not our own.
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A recently released movie that we can recommend for Veterans Day is called The Outpost. The names of the actors may first draw your attention. Scott Eastwood, Milo Gibson, Caleb Landry Jones, and Orlando Bloom are among the cast.
The Outpost can be difficult to watch. You can see a trailer on YouTube here:
It isn’t like the films about World War II starring John Wayne. Based on the book written by Jake Tapper entitled, The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor, the film depicts the battle for Outpost Keating. Fifty-three American soldiers were stationed in a camp located in a valley in Northern Afghanistan at the base of the Hindu Kush mountains. The location made it a deathtrap. Taliban forces held the higher ground. Our troops were under constant surveillance. They were fired upon often. Eventually a battle took place where our troops faced about 400 Taliban.
Realizing that we sometimes think so little of our military personnel that we place them in a deathtrap that was Combat Outpost Keating, is disturbing and disappointing to say the least. The book and the movie will offer you a new perspective on how we treat our troops and our veterans. The phrase “thank you for your service” is mentioned several times as the lip service offered by a grateful nation. The only saving grace is that we don’t treat all our military this way.
While we are considering changing our perspective, another excellent Veterans Day movie is titled The Last Full Measure. Another recent release, it depicts the life and death of one man, William H. Pitsenbarger. It is such a poignant story, told with such compassion that I have a difficult time writing about it through the tears in my eyes and the lump in my throat.
The Last Full Measure offers us many recognizable actors doing their best work. Samuel L. Jackson, William Hurt, Ed Harris, Christopher Plummer, John Savage, Diane Ladd, Amy Madigan, and Peter Fonda who passed away before the film was released. Even the YouTube trailer chokes me up. I’ve now watched the film multiple times if only to appreciate those rare instances where people use their power and authority to do the right thing. You can see the trailer here:
Pitsenbarger was a US Air Force Pararescueman in Vietnam. During Operation Abilene, he repelled from a helicopter to help provide medical care for the wounded who were members of the US Army 1st Infantry Division. Pararescue is not supposed to be on the ground during firefights. Despite pleas for him to stay with the helicopter, Pitsenbarger went where he thought he was most needed.
Almost an entire Company of men were killed during Operation Abilene. Pitsenbarger refused a direct order to evacuate on one of the last helicopters to carry wounded off the battlefield. He was killed shortly after that. He was credited with saving about 60 lives during Operation Abilene, on April 11, 1966.
His fellow Pararescueman put him in for the Congressional Medal of Honor with full support from the US Army veterans who he saved. The request was stalled due to multiple political roadblocks which are discussed in the movie. The story is told through the eyes of those who were there. Those who may have only known him for a few hours of his life.
Not only are the actors memorable, but some of their lines can bounce around your memory for days. “Justice delayed is justice denied.” “Usually we’re judged by what we do, but what we don’t do is what haunts us.” The Last Full Measure is a story that gives you a better understanding of veterans who fought in a war that turned the tide of how we looked at the military. It may give you a better understanding of a generation of military personnel who were demonized when they returned to a country they didn’t recognize.
As I was growing up, Veterans Day didn’t have much significance. I’m not sure why, considering both my parents were veterans. They didn’t make a big deal out of it. I don’t think it was because my parents wanted to forget, but perhaps because they were too busy living in the present.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve learned to appreciate what my parents signed up for when they were so young. Mom, joined the US Navy WAVES but never made it overseas since she joined towards the end of World War II. Dad, a few years older than her, enlisted in the Army Air Corps as a young man and left the home he knew in Great Falls, Montana to travel to an unfamiliar world. He served as a mechanic in North Africa and Italy during the war and worked on B24 Liberators.
A couple of years ago, my husband John and I stepped back in time when the Wings of Freedom Tour brought four World War II era planes to the Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport. Touring the bombers made me think of my dad, in particular.
His unit’s most famous missions were the raids on the Ploiesti oil fields in Romania. Yes, the oil raids were historically significant, but that wasn’t necessarily on my mind. As I stepped inside the B24 on that summer day in Belgrade, I thought of the few times that Dad talked about his service during the war. How, when he spoke, his voice was thick with pride for the work that he had done.
As I stepped carefully through the bomb compartment of the B24, I wondered how many times he had done the same thing and wondered what he thought, what he felt. It’s funny how an inanimate object, such as a decades old aircraft, can foster a feeling of connection to someone you lost years ago. The Wings of Freedom Tour helps so many of us feel connected. (More info on the Wings of Freedom Tour can be found at www.collingsfoundation.org)
I also have a good friend, David O. Chung, who is a Vietnam veteran and is currently the Senior Vice Commander, Department of Montana, of the Military Order of The Purple Heart. He has lived in Montana for several years.
I am in the process of helping Doc, as he likes to be called, write his memoirs and we have talked about many of his experiences in Vietnam. I think about how many of us may question the missions that our military carry out in our name. We sanction these missions with our tax dollars and we might think that each soldier should appreciate that they put themselves in harm’s way to protect our freedoms. That it is a higher purpose that drives their actions. And in many cases, this is true.
My friend Doc put things in perspective with one story that took place during the beginning of the Easter Offensive in the spring of 1972. Doc is a US Air Force veteran who left Vietnam in February of 1973. Doc tells it best in his own words:
Of the many times we sprinted to the bunkers at An Loc, I have one time that I’ll never forget.
We’d been stranded at An Loc a few days when we were chased into the bunker because of yet another mortar attack. It was getting old. The bunker was hot, humid, dark, wet, smelly. Mostly it smelled like smoke from everything that was burning. In the distance and closer by, munitions were exploding. The terror was constant. I just wasn’t sure what I felt anymore. I wasn’t exactly numb, but it was like I couldn’t feel any more afraid. I had reached my limit.
That day I was inside the bunker with Mark Jasper, Danny Gummels, and several South Vietnamese. The Vietnamese spoke to each other but, as usual, we didn’t know what they were talking about.
“As Christians,” Mark said slowly, “we’re supposed to believe that Jesus Christ died for our sins. And here we are in Vietnam dying for nothing.”
I couldn’t believe what he was saying. He stated it as calm as could be. I was vaguely aware that Easter had happened but who knew what day it was at this point.
Danny studied Mark for a few seconds before responding. “You’re wrong. I don’t know what you believe or what your religion is, but we’re not dying for nothing. We’re dying for each other.”
Dying for each other was such a military mindset. Then we all burst out laughing.
“Yeah. Right…” Mark snorted.
I wasn’t even dead yet and we spoke of how we were dying. Our friends, our troops, the South Vietnamese, the enemy. And we were hiding in a stinking bunker dying a little every day. And laughing about it.
Between the veterans we may know and the art of film where the pictures and sounds can make us feel things we don’t like, each one of us can learn how to honor our veterans. They are “ours” not as in ownership, but in the pride that we share in our country.
One of our favorite quotes about how to pay our respects to our veterans is from President John F. Kennedy who was himself a decorated Navy veteran. It was his 1963 Thanksgiving Proclamation that was issued before his death. “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words but to live by them.”
So in the end, thanking a veteran for their service may not be enough. Words come easy, but at times they are the only things we have to show our appreciation. We try to understand but we fall short if we haven’t experienced military service. We can only hope that we express ourselves in a way that evokes the feeling in our veterans that they matter to us, that their actions give us pause for reflection, and that we owe them a debt we can never fully repay.