Worth Revisiting Wednesday: A Tale of Two Soldiers

Given that this Veteran’s Day oh-so-conveniently falls on a Wednesday, I thought I’d try my first link-up with Worth Revisiting Wednesday, hosted by Allison at Reconciled to You. The following is a post I wrote a couple of years ago after visiting my husband’s stepfather, Ed, during one of our visits to Minnesota.

Ed has since passed away, but I continue to think of him on Veteran’s Day, along with other members of our family who have served in the armed forces. All three of my older boys’ namesakes served; one died in action in France just days before the end of World War I. My husband, my father, my grandfather, many of my uncles, cousins, and friends served. I grew up in an Army town and spent much of my young adulthood in a Navy town. I consider myself fortunate to have known and loved so many who have given of themselves in that way.

Today, I remember all of them. I thank, honor, and pray for them. And if you’ve served and sacrificed for our country in the armed forces, I do the same for you. Thank you.

~~~

When we were in Minnesota last week visiting my husband’s family, we paid a couple of visits to Brennan’s stepfather, Ed, at his nursing home. Ed is the man who taught my husband about responsibility, who provided him with structure and support through his teenage years, who was there for Brennan in the difficult time after his own father passed away. Ed is also a World War II veteran who fought in the Battle of the Bulge and was wounded just days before the war ended.

With my own parents still in their ‘50’s, it was more than a little difficult for me to get used to having a (step)father-in-law who is a member of the “greatest generation.” And I have to admit that, having seen him only once or twice a year for the past six years, I don’t know Ed very well. But I know that my husband loves and respects him. And I know that he has lived a long and interesting life, with his fair share of pain.

Some of it, of course, can be traced to his service in that awful war. Shortly before it ended, Ed found himself in Passau, Germany. In trying to rescue his sergeant, who had been shot, Ed was himself shot in the lung and the arm. He earned the bronze star for his actions. And he has lived with the repercussions of his injuries ever since.

Standing in Ed’s nursing home room during this year’s visit, I was reminded powerfully of an exchange I had with another World War II veteran, 13 years ago. Then, I was sitting on a train platform outside Munich – exhausted, overwhelmed, and anxious – having just arrived hours before – by myself – for a summer studying German at a language institute in Bavaria.

The elderly, frail gentleman was sitting on a bench by himself. I’m sure he could tell I felt lost, looking around for a perch for myself and my unwieldy luggage. He indicated that I should sit next to him. Once it became obvious that I was an American (and quite possibly this was obvious before I even opened my mouth), he started speaking to me in English. We made small talk; I told him about my plans to study German that summer.

After a few minutes chatting cordially, he paused and looked at me intently. He said “An American did this to me.” Turning slightly, he revealed to me the shoulder that I could not, until then, see. It looked like a large chunk of flesh had been carved away from it. His scrawny arm hung lamely at his side. “I saw the man who did it,” he said. “I saw his eyes.”

Lightening his tone somewhat, he continued: “I don’t blame him. We were at war. We were doing what we were told. If he hadn’t shot me, I would have shot him.” (Pause – deathly still pause.) “War is an awful, horrible thing. It is always horrible. Don’t you ever forget that.”

Then, stripping away the tension entirely, the old soldier smiled and told me, “I love America. My wife and I visit New York with friends every year.” Before we parted, he raised his eyebrows at me and said, “Now, as soon as you arrive at your institute, you call your mother. You call your mother. She’ll be worried about you.”

I don’t think I’ll ever forget the experience.

Whenever I see an elderly person, particularly one who looks weak or ill, I wonder what kind of a life they’ve lived. I wonder at the events and the change they must have seen in their lifetime. Whenever I see an old man wearing one of those hats that veterans wear – the kind that denotes the ship they served on – I envision the young, strong man he must have been. I don’t know what to say or do, except to show a little kindness and maybe a little love. I want to ask, but I don’t want to intrude. I want to thank, but I don’t want to sound trite. So mostly I just wonder. And I say a little prayer.

With Ed, I know something of his story. But I still don’t know what to say. So I show some kindness and some love. I give him a hug and a kiss. I encourage the boys to do the same for their “Baba Ed.” Every once in a while, I have the boys color him a picture and we stick it in the mail. And I pray.

I still think of that old German soldier – a veteran of the same war as Ed. The war that forever damaged his shoulder and Ed’s lung. They fought on different sides. Maybe they had different aims, but I think they were probably both just doing what was expected of them. Years later, I get a glimpse of their service in that faraway time, and I wonder. Quite a thing to think about, isn’t it?

These Walls - A Tale of Two Soldiers

Let’s Do More Than Remember

Today was Veterans Day – one of those days, scattered throughout the calendar, when we’re given a break from our normal routine. We (at least those of us who live in the lands of plentiful federal employment) have absorbed such days as a matter of course. The federal holidays aren’t so much the secular versions of that word’s root (holy day), but rather “holidays” in that more British sense – what we call “vacation”.

Sure, in this, the Age of Facebook, lots of us post online remembrances of our favorite veterans and change our profile pictures accordingly. But I’d venture to say that for the vast majority of Americans, November 11 is no different from the days immediately before and after it. Except, of course, that federal employees and other lucky ducks don’t have to set their alarm clocks. The same goes for Martin Luther King Day, Presidents’ Day, and Columbus Day. Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day are special insofar as they involve barbecues, and maybe fireworks or parades.

I’ve always been a little unsettled by this tendency to take something that’s supposed to be special and treat it like it’s not. After all, if we’re not focusing on Veterans on Veterans Day or Martin Luther King on his day or Columbus’ “discovery” of the new world on that day, then what’s the point? Why give out a handful of vacation days and pretend they’re special?

When my husband and I started our family, I figured it was time for me to change things. I was going to make my mark – at least on my husband and myself and however many little people we ushered into this world. I wanted to do more than vaguely “remember” the reasons for those days. I wanted to mark them in ways that would teach my children about sacrifice, about civic responsibility, about making a difference – the secular values that (I imagine) are supposed to be imparted by the observance of the federal holidays. (Note: I also wanted to teach my children about religious holidays and the values their observance is supposed to impart. I aspired to live out both the federal and liturgical calendars.)

So far, I’ve mostly failed.

So far, I’ve mostly contented myself with “remembering” the reason for a holiday and tossing a few prayers heavenward. I’ve gotten too comfortable in the “I love plenty of veterans!” mentality. After all, my husband is a veteran. His father and stepfather were. My father is and my grandfather was. Brennan and I both have uncles and cousins who are veterans, or who still serve. Our nephew is a veteran. I grew up in an Army town and spent much of my young adulthood in a Navy one. So I’m covered, right? I can claim to “understand,” to “honor,” to “remember,” simply because I love. Right?

That thought, of course, feels about as empty as it is. I don’t deserve a pass on this one. Very few of us do. If I value that which is supposedly honored by a holiday, then I should act like it.

On our first Veterans Day after becoming parents, Brennan and I took our then five-month-old to Arlington National Cemetery to visit the graves of our son’s namesakes. Our boy is named for my Great-Uncle Breck, who served in World War II and went on to make his entire career in the U.S. Navy. My great-uncle, in turn, was named for his Uncle Breck, who served in the Army in World War I and was killed on a battlefield in France, less than a week before the Armistice was signed. (Heartbreaking, isn’t it?) We plopped our baby down on the grass in front of those two men’s graves. We took pictures. We talked about how we’d continue to go to Arlington as our son grew, about how we’d teach him about his namesakes’ sacrifices. Veterans Day became more personal to us.

76976_464059203780_2247237_n

74514_464059258780_1961675_n

We named our second son in honor of a veteran too – this time my husband’s father, who served in the Army. We took a picture of him sitting at his grandfather’s grave in a military cemetery in Minnesota.

P1110845

But we haven’t done much since. We’ve made one more Veterans Day trip to Arlington, but we’ve treated the others pretty much like normal days. We haven’t marked Memorial Days, Labor Days, Martin Luther King Days, or any of those other federal holidays (or Catholic Holy Days, for that matter).

We’ve done just a little teaching. Today I had a five-minute conversation in the car with my boys, trying to explain Veterans Day to them. For now, they’re young and they don’t understand much. To explain veterans, I first had to explain the military, and then war. I had to hope that they understood the concept of “country.”

Soon enough, though, my boys will be older and better able to understand such things. And I’ll need to be ready. If I want them to honor veterans, I’ll have to show them how. If I want them to memorialize those who died for our country, I’ll have to do it first. If I want them to value the contributions of workers and explorers and those who fought for civil rights, then I’ll have to make sure my boys understand just how valuable those contributions were.

So next year, I need to do more than remember. I need to save those freebie days for the observations they deserve. I need to head back to Arlington. I need to pull out photos and have more involved conversations. I need to find real, tangible, and teachable ways in which to honor.

P1110847

A Tale of Two Soldiers, Revisited

The following post is from this past July. To mark Veterans Day (and Ed’s 88th birthday tomorrow), I thought it was worth sharing again.

Thank you to all who have served and sacrificed for our country in the armed forces.

When we were in Minnesota last week visiting my husband’s family, we paid a couple of visits to Brennan’s stepfather, Ed, at his nursing home. Ed is the man who taught my husband about responsibility, who provided him with structure and support through his teenage years, who was there for Brennan in the difficult time after his own father passed away. Ed is also a World War II veteran who fought in the Battle of the Bulge and was wounded just days before the war ended.

With my own parents still in their ‘50’s, it was more than a little difficult for me to get used to having a (step)father-in-law who is a member of the “greatest generation.” And I have to admit that, having seen him only once or twice a year for the past six years, I don’t know Ed very well. But I know that my husband loves and respects him. And I know that he has lived a long and interesting life, with his fair share of pain.

Some of it, of course, can be traced to his service in that awful war. Shortly before it ended, Ed found himself in Passau, Germany. In trying to rescue his sergeant, who had been shot, Ed was himself shot in the lung and the arm. He earned the bronze star for his actions. And he has lived with the repercussions of his injuries ever since.

Standing in Ed’s nursing home room during this year’s visit, I was reminded powerfully of an exchange I had with another World War II veteran, 13 years ago. Then, I was sitting on a train platform outside Munich – exhausted, overwhelmed, and anxious – having just arrived hours before – by myself – for a summer studying German at a language institute in Bavaria.

The elderly, frail gentleman was sitting on a bench by himself. I’m sure he could tell I felt lost, looking around for a perch for myself and my unwieldy luggage. He indicated that I should sit next to him. Once it became obvious that I was an American (and quite possibly this was obvious before I even opened my mouth), he started speaking to me in English. We made small talk; I told him about my plans to study German that summer.

After a few minutes chatting cordially, he paused and looked at me intently. He said “An American did this to me.” Turning slightly, he revealed to me the shoulder that I could not, until then, see. It looked like a large chunk of flesh had been carved away from it. His scrawny arm hung lamely at his side. “I saw the man who did it,” he said. “I saw his eyes.”

Lightening his tone somewhat, he continued: “I don’t blame him. We were at war. We were doing what we were told. If he hadn’t shot me, I would have shot him.” (Pause – deathly still pause.) “War is an awful, horrible thing. It is always horrible. Don’t you ever forget that.”

Then, stripping away the tension entirely, the old soldier smiled and told me, “I love America. My wife and I visit New York with friends every year.” Before we parted, he raised his eyebrows at me and said, “Now, as soon as you arrive at your institute, you call your mother. You call your mother. She’ll be worried about you.”

I don’t think I’ll ever forget the experience.

Whenever I see an elderly person, particularly one who looks weak or ill, I wonder what kind of a life they’ve lived. I wonder at the events and the change they must have seen in their lifetime. Whenever I see an old man wearing one of those hats that veterans wear – the kind that denotes the ship they served on – I envision the young, strong man he must have been. I don’t know what to say or do, except to show a little kindness and maybe a little love. I want to ask, but I don’t want to intrude. I want to thank, but I don’t want to sound trite. So mostly I just wonder. And I say a little prayer.

With Ed, I know something of his story. But I still don’t know what to say. So I show some kindness and some love. I give him a hug and a kiss. I encourage the boys to do the same for their “Baba Ed.” Every once in a while, I have the boys color him a picture and we stick it in the mail. And I pray.

I still think of that old German soldier – a veteran of the same war as Ed. The war that forever damaged his shoulder and Ed’s lung. They fought on different sides. Maybe they had different aims, but I think they were probably both just doing what was expected of them. Years later, I get a glimpse of their service in that faraway time, and I wonder. Quite a thing to think about, isn’t it?