It was a beautiful mid-morning on Veterans Day. I was walking across the Wal-Mart parking lot on my way to do some last minute food shopping for the cookout we were having that afternoon. As I approached the entrance to the food section of the store, I noticed two elderly gentlemen sitting at a frayed card table that held a basket of artificial poppies, two small pads, some pencils and a couple of small containers, the kind used for accepting donations. Both men were dressed neatly in white shirts, black trousers and garrison caps with the letters VFW emblazoned on the front. This was a familiar sight to me on Veterans Day as I’m sure it is for many Americans. What struck me as odd was in previous years the men who were doing this work seemed much younger and never sat down. They were always STANDING outside doorways or on corners holding the poppies and donation cans. As I moved closer to the table I realized why they were sitting. They both were very thin and frail and appeared to be in their late seventies or early eighties. (I later found out in our conversation one of them was 81 the other 84.) Both had piercing blue yet sad eyes that were mounted in very thin heavily tanned and wrinkled faces. They had that familiar look of men that had witnessed more than their share of combat and mans’ inhumanity to man. I have observed that look many times over the years on the faces of many soldiers of all ages from several different wars.
I stopped at the table to say hello to these old soldiers and to make a donation as I do every year when I pick up my poppy from a volunteer. I was greeted by weak yet warm and friendly smiles from both men as I shook their hands, introduced myself and thanked them for their service to our country and their continued dedication to Veterans organizations.
During the course of our conversation I learned that both men had fought in World War II against the Japanese. Both men shared a brief but fascinating history of their experiences in World War II with me. I found out during our pleasant conversation, that they were highly decorated for their service. I was surprised but delighted that they were sharing this information with me. World War II vets usually never talk about their service experiences.
I have always been in awe of these great warriors of World War II (My brother was one of them.) for several reasons. For one, their great ability to persevere after having seen so much death and destruction. Another for coming home after the war and despite tremendous odds against them, being able to go back to work, start families and become productive civilians again.
They informed me that they had stayed in touch with one another over the years after the war (They had lived in different states for many years.) and hooked up again when both retired and moved to Florida.
They then very graciously thanked ME for being so kind in asking them about their service and for taking an interest in their background.
As I turned to leave, one of them said "Say buddy, you must be a vet yourself." I proudly but sheepishly stated that I was. They took a genuine interest in my background by asking me several questions regarding my service. I was very flattered by this show of interest. I shared a brief history of my service in the Army with them and then I began to ask them some more questions.
As I stood there listening to these men, I began to realize how VERY much older they had gotten. As the TV commercial states, "we are losing more and more of them daily". Some of the greatest people that have ever worn a military uniform in service to our country are slowly fading away.
As many Americans have, I have been taking these people for granted. I assumed that these living monuments would be around forever. This of course is not so. Just as the great warriors of the Revolutionary War and the Civil War have become extinct, so too shall the men and women of World War I and World War II.
These great men humbled me. These old warriors that have withstood the test of time. These outstanding Americans that have given so much to all of us and have asked for very little if anything in return. For the most part, they have lived quietly without recognition for most of their lives. I would be willing to bet that most of the people living in their neighborhood are unaware of the fact that they have been living next to greatness for years.
As I said my goodbye and finally left them and proceeded towards the entrance to the food section of the store, I looked around at all of the other last minute picnic shoppers that were hurrying in and out of the store. Most were not even giving these men a second glance as they passed them by. Much less stopping to acknowledge them. Some of them deliberately avoided eye contact so that they would not have to give up a lousy dollar for a poppy. Yet these same people would pay hundreds of dollars for a ticket to see some singing group that would openly badmouth our country. Or they would be more than happy to pay 7 or 8 bucks to see a movie starring Hollywood’s finest anti-Americans.
It seems totally unfair to see how millions of people hold entertainers and sports figures in such high esteem. Young people faint at rock concerts and fight each other for a piece of clothing from some demented moron who couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket. Others will kill to get an autograph of some actor or actress who will go to a foreign country to bad mouth our military… Still others will look upon a former football player who murdered his ex-wife and her friend as a hero. And perhaps worst of all, some still worship a former President of our country for disgracing his office, his family and his church.
These same people have never stopped to realize that if it were not for the men and women of the military that have fought to keep this country free, they would never have the freedom and the right to criticize anyone or anything in this nation.
I thought to myself, what a terrible waste. These people were walking right passed the biggest celebrities that they could ever hope to meet in their lifetime without so much as a "hello". Men that put their life on the line for them. If it was not for those men and other men and women like them, these oblivious shoppers might be in a work camp today and speaking Japanese or German. These people were in the presence of greatness and they were too caught up in shopping for their cookout or picnic to even realize they were snubbing the very people that made their celebration possible. What a wonderful opportunity those people had missed and may never get again.
I sincerely hope that it’s not to late for many Americans to wake up and realize that in spite of all of our faults, we live in the greatest free country on the planet. And that we enjoy our freedom because of the sacrifices made by the millions of selfless men and women of the military that have protected and served this country on our behalf down through the years.
As you enjoy your day today say a little prayer of thanks for all of our military and remember the magnificent job that they have done and are doing for us as a nation. And please do not forget the thousands of our finest that are in the many VA hospitals throughout the world. I spent almost a year in a VA hospital in New Jersey in the early 70’s and I have a special place in my heart for these great Americans. Some have been hospitalized for years or have been in and out of these facilities needing on going treatment of wounds they have suffered during combat. These are the forgotten heroes who spend their days going through painful rehab day after day while still waiting for visitors that in most cases never come. More and more of our finest young men and women are entering these hospitals every day due to the many conflicts we have going on throughout the world. Maybe you can’t go today, but some day please make it your business to visit one of these hospitals to shake hands with as many of these brave men and women as you can and thank them for the tremendous sacrifices that they have made on our behalf.
And in your travels today, or any day for that matter, if you should see one of our Veterans, especially World War II vets, (For time is running out on them and you may not get another chance to show them your appreciation.) stop him or her and thank them for their service before it’s too late.
"United We Stand."
Dave Francis….Proud American.