On Veterans Day we are grateful for what our veterans have done in war and peace across the years. Much can be learned from contemplating what their service was like and what it means to us today. There are many to learn from — 23.2 million as of 2008 — to be exact.
Most veterans, as citizen-soldiers, have fulfilled their contract with our society to defend our rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” But defending those rights often meant veterans could not fully enjoy them. They had to put off civilian careers and pastimes to carry out challenging assignments. They belonged to the armed forces twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, submitting to their superiors, following orders without question and going where they were told to go. They gave up the best years of their lives to perform often thankless missions. Sometimes they returned to civilian life impaired, or did not return at all.
When democracy was threatened, veterans rose above self interest and transcended narrow partisanship and nationalism to defend it. Their words and deeds inspire us all today.
John F. Kennedy, a Democratic President, in his 1961 inaugural address called on Americans to “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
Kennedy, as a World War II Navy combat veteran, could say those words—and know their true meaning. He received the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for being “unmindful of personal danger” after the PT boat he commanded was sunk in the Pacific. He was cited for unhesitatingly braving “the difficulties and hazards of darkness…swimming many hours to secure aid and food after he had succeeded in getting his crew ashore.” While swimming, Kennedy towed one of his badly burned crewman to an island--and eventual safety.
All veterans in war or peace have known that doing “for our country” as Kennedy put it, usually meant doing much more than what they had to do as civilians. Doing meant service--putting someone or something above themselves.
Ronald Reagan, a Republican President and a U.S. Army officer in World War II, was in France in 1984, commending the selflessness of veterans at Pont du Hoc on D-Day forty years earlier.
…. You were young the day you took these cliffs; some of you were hardly more than boys, with the deepest joys of life before you. Yet you risked everything here. Why? Why did you do it? What impelled you to put aside the instinct for self-preservation and risk your lives to take these cliffs? What inspired all the men of the armies that met here? We look at you, and somehow we know the answer. It was faith and belief. It was loyalty and love.
An American and Canadian on the same side in World War I expressed what service in that war was like in words that resonate today.
The American, author Ernest Hemingway, while still an Oak Park resident, learned what it meant to live and sacrifice for a higher cause. It meant serving the Red Cross near the Italian/Austrian front in World War I. He, like Kennedy, rescued a wounded comrade. While carrying him to safety, he was hit by enemy fire. He brings to readers the horror and heroism of such experiences in these words from his novel, A Farewell to Arms:
…I tried to get closer to Passini to try to put a tourniquet on his legs but I could not move. I tried again and my legs moved a little. I could pull backward along with my arms and elbows. Passini was quiet now. I sat beside him, undid my tunic and tried to rip the tail of my shirt. It would not rip and I bit the edge of the cloth to start it….There were three others to locate….
More than three decades later, Hemingway declined Kennedy’s invitation to his inauguration with regrets, but watched it on television. What Ernest saw and heard moved him to write an encouraging note to the young President. Kennedy, like Hemingway, had written about citizens’ courageous service for democracy. The two veterans and Pulitzer Prize-winning authors deeply grasped what service meant in war and peace.
Nearly a half century earlier, a Canadian surgeon stood up for the goodness of life in the midst of war. Major John McCrae, serving in France in World War I had been operating on as many wounded men as he could through endless days and nights--to the point of his own physical and mental exhaustion. Yet he still summoned the spiritual stamina to write a poem, inspired as in Hemingway’s novel by a casualty he knew in a real place and time. His words convey to readers what those who serve go through.
Dr. McCrae’s good friend, an artillery officer, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, was killed on May 2, 1915 by an exploding shell. McCrae set the scene in his poem, “In Flanders Fields” from the perspective of soldiers who had surrendered life’s ultimate gift: life itself.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow Between the crosses, row on row, That mark our place; and in the sky The larks, still bravely singing, fly Scarce heard amid the guns below.
In the next stanza, McCrae captures the meaning of what these veterans have surrendered:
We are the Dead. Short days ago We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, Loved and were loved, and now we lie In Flanders fields.
[Indicate the painting.]
This poem inspired this painting which is kept in the current Veterans Room of the Oak Park Public Library, as it had been kept in an earlier Veterans Room, which looked out on the Scoville Park Veterans Monument. The memorial has plaques with names of 2,390 Oak Park and River Forest villagers who served in World War I, including Ernest Hemingway’s. Two years ago, to tell the story behind that name on a plaque in a celebration of A Farewell to Arms, leaders of the Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park, the Library and local veterans organized a ceremony for Veterans Day. This revived the commemoration, which had nearly disappeared through loss of local support.
Leading that effort were William and Virginia Cassin, Deborah Preiser, Victor and Jean Guarino and I. This year, the commemoration could not be held at the Monument because it was being restored. But Virginia Cassin and Jill Wagner, Director of Marketing for the Oak Park Arms Retirement Community, succeeded in bringing the ceremony here. The Park District of Oak Park, led by its fully committed Executive Director, Gary F. Balling, is working toward a re-dedication of the Monument on Memorial Day, 2010.
Such devotion to veterans and their causes illustrates their impact on Americans’ lives, but no one has been more deeply affected than the veterans’ loved ones. In McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields,” he mentions after the veterans “lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,” that they “loved and were loved.”
Beyond the passing dawns and sunsets, the gift of love endures, living on in the hearts of those closest to the veterans. This is the solace of loved ones who surrendered with their veterans some of their own rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. They saw their veterans off. Then they spent months apart, missing them, fearing for their safety, caring for their families, and dealing with their wounding and dying. The veterans’ closest loved ones are myriad--and two are in our midst. They inspire us, along with their veterans, with their lessons of faithfulness and sacrifice.
Virginia (or Ginie) Cassin is one. Her husband, William (or Bill), who died last summer, had fought in World War II in Europe, where he conducted reconnaissance and helped liberate a concentration camp. When Bill completed his mission in Europe, he was ordered to the Pacific. Before going, he and Ginie married in Oak Park. But when American atomic bombs brought Japan to surrender, Bill never had to go. He took part in our earliest revivals of Veterans and Memorial Day commemorations in Scoville Park.
Kenneth (or Ken) McAulay and his wife, Marilyn, long active in the Senior Citizens Center of Oak Park and River Forest, which meets here at the Oak Park Arms, had a similar experience. McAulay was, like Kennedy, a Naval officer on a small craft in the Pacific. The bombs that spared Bill Cassin spared Ken McAulay from a brutal battle to conquer Japan.
Over the last two years, we called attention to the Veterans Monument’s figures representing the Navy, Army and Air Corps (forerunner of the Air Force). We then recognized veterans from each branch plus the Marines and Coast Guard. Today we continue the tradition by asking those from each branch to please stand or raise your hands:
The Navy, Army, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard [Here revised to fit the order of the figures].
We also ask all who supported veterans and their efforts: spouses, family members and other loved ones to please stand or raise your hands.
America’s first veterans who fought for our rights in our War of Independence were honored by another monument. This one in Concord, Massachusetts has the words of its own local author, Ralph Waldo Emerson, inscribed on its base.
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard 'round the world.
Emerson wrote some other words engraved on a wall there—and on my heart throughout my tour of duty. They are true for veterans here and everywhere:
So near is grandeur to our dust. So nigh is God to Man.
When Duty whispers low, “Thou must” The youth replies, “I can.”
Thank you. God bless you and the country we have sought to serve.