They are around us every day. We may not know who they are, or what they did, or when they did it, but, they are with us in body and in spirit. They are the old man with a cane who struggles to cross a street, but who once stormed the ash-laden hills of Iwo Jima. They are the janitor with a distant stare who won a Bronze Star at a place called Hue. They are the mailman who fought the Republican Guard and the salesman who raced to the gates of Baghdad.
They are our veterans. The more I think about it, the more I realize how much their actions have influenced all of us. They are larger than life figures, even though, none of them ever wanted to be anything more than a regular guy.
These are some of the vets I’ve had the honor of knowing:
When I was a young boy, my father and I would go flying with a man named Brock. In 1975, Brock flew a Cessna, but thirty years before, he had been at the controls of a Marine Corps F4U Corsair. On our weekend flights over Northern Illinois, Brock, a normally talkative man, would grow silent as his plane traced the shoreline of Lake Michigan. He seemed to be lost in times past. For him, the great lake was now the Solomon Sea and the forests of Lake County were the dense jungles of Rabaul. He was always scanning the sky, perhaps for a ghostlike Japanese Zero.
Another friend was a man called Chick. I always thought Chick was a little quirky. He had a nervous tick and he would sometimes mumble to himself. My father explained to me that Chick had been shot down over Germany and he had never completely recovered from his three years in a POW camp. Chick always knew he was a little strange, but to me he was a real-life Steve McQueen, who related countless tales of escape attempts from the Krauts.
Phil was a coach at the Jesuit high school I attended. A former infantryman in World War II, a standard PE class with Phil, was like an hour with Vince Lombardi. Phil would always have us “fall in” or “dress, right dress.” As young men, we had no idea what the heck Phil was talking about, but we knew he was one tough hombre. Swimming class took place at Ice Station Zebra. Phil never had the water above 65 degrees. He also had the windows wide open…in January…in Chicago! Anyone who got under Phil’s skin “was dropped” for pushups. During PE outside, if Phil thought we weren’t paying attention, we were ordered to “double time” for an hour around the perimeter of the school. In today’s world of trigger warnings and micro-aggressions, Phil’s tough love would be the subject of lawsuits and a guest appearance on the Nancy Grace Show. But, back then, we didn’t care. Phil had been in W-W-2, the Big One. We would have followed Phil into hell and couldn’t have asked for better company.
While Phil was all guts and glory, Charlie was all tweed and cool. He taught math at the local grammar school. As mellow as he was, kids never tried to pull one over on him. They must have sensed that behind the laid back exterior was a hard as nails interior. They were right. Charlie had been a Navy officer in World War II and had witnessed first-hand, the suicidal Japanese kamikaze attacks on our ships. I can still remember small groups of young boys enthralled by his tales of the South Pacific. I know I was.
To a boy, these guys were heroes who had saved the world. They were giants in my eyes back then. They still are today.
On Veterans’ Day, I always remember two of my comrades killed in Operation Desert Storm. While serving with me in the 4th Squadron, 7th Cavalry, Sgt. Edwin Kutz and Sgt. Kenneth Gentry were killed in action while fighting the Iraqi Republican Guard on February 26, 1991, during the Battle of Phase Line Bullet.
Mortally wounded, lying on the desert battlefield, Gentry’s last sight was that of Command Sgt. Maj. Ronald Sneed, who dodged enemy tank fire to get to him. Sneed attempted to save Gentry’s life, but to no avail. Sneed knew war better than any man in 4-7 CAV. He had done five tours in Vietnam with the 173rd Airborne Brigade and had won enough Silver Stars and Bronze Stars for a whole battalion. I still believe he’s one of the bravest men I will ever know.
Then there’s my lifelong friend, Steve Marshall. Steve served as a lieutenant in the Navy for seven years before becoming a FBI Agent. He did two tours with the FBI in Afghanistan. During his last tour, he was awarded the FBI Medal of Valor for saving the life of a US soldier during a Taliban ambush.
I would like to see Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s 1962 speech to the cadets at West Point be made required reading for every American on Veterans’ Day. For MacArthur so eloquently eulogized the sacrifices of the American serviceman.
“My estimate of him was formed on the battlefield many, many years ago, and has never changed. I regarded him then, as I regard him now, as one of the world’s noblest figures; not only as one of the finest military characters, but also as one of the most stainless. His name and fame are the birthright of every American citizen. In his youth and strength, his love and loyalty, he gave all that mortality can give. But when I think of his patience in adversity of his courage under fire and of his modesty in victory, I am filled with an emotion of admiration I cannot put into words. He belongs to history as furnishing one of the greatest examples of successful patriotism. He belongs to posterity as the instructor of future generations in the principles of liberty and freedom. He belongs to the present, to us, by his virtues and by his achievements. In 20 campaigns, on a hundred battlefields, around a thousand camp fires, I have witnessed that enduring fortitude, that patriotic self-abnegation, and that invincible determination which have carved his statue in the hearts of his people. From one end of the world to the other, he has drained deep the chalice of courage.”
Most of these men are no longer with us. But, like all vets, their name liveth for evermore.