In case you missed it—and I don’t see how you could—this past Monday was Veterans Day. It’s one of the few holidays we’ve left alone, not moving it around so we can have another long weekend, although this year it cooperated with the premise by falling on a Monday.
As is the custom, the majority of Facebook world posted pictures of the veterans in their family, myself included. It might be a spouse or a parent, a child or a sibling. It might even have been a picture of themselves, but many folks took a moment to honor the veterans in their family and often to tell the stories of their service.
As I scrolled through all the pictures, many of which were World War II era, I started wondering what they must have thought as they posed for these photographs. How many of them had been drafted? How many had voluntarily enlisted out of a sense of patriotism and duty? How many of them realized they might never return . . . how many of them never did?
Of the pictures posted on Facebook, most were privileged to come home, alive and well but changed forever. You cannot go through what they did without it leaving its mark. Even if you didn’t see combat, your friends might, and there was always the chance you would. Even if you were safely encamped state side, there was always the possibility you would be called into action. And with that call came the distinct possibility of death, or at the very least, wounds which would never truly heal.
My father was one of the lucky ones. As his unit prepared to ship out during the Korean War, an officer came to their barracks asking if anyone could type. He was the only one who could, and that skill kept him at Fort Bragg in North Carolina for the remainder of his service.
Jim Garey was one of those who voluntarily enlisted during World War II. He was only 17 meaning his parents had to sign the consent forms allowing him to do so; to the Army’s credit, he was not sworn in to active duty until his 18th birthday had passed. Jim was trained in radio communications and assigned to an amphibious unit that was charged with making assault landings on islands held by the Japanese. That assignment almost cost him his life in October of 1943. It was then they were alerted to the approach of a Japanese bomber—one that came in so low he could hear the doors of the bay open and the bomb as it fell. The communications officer died. The radio operator sustained a severe head injury. And Jim was buried alive under tons of dirt, sand bags, and logs. His only salvation was his steel helmet which fell over his face, giving him a few minutes of air before the supply was depleted and he passed out. He regained consciousness as he was being carried to the medical tent. Only then did he realize he hadn’t died. Four weeks later he returned to active duty. In later years he would come close to tears as he spoke of those days, not from the memories of war, but in recalling the tears his father shed when Jim finally came home for good on December 21, 1945.
His story is multiplied thousands of times, over scores of wars and conflicts—and for many there was no happy ending. Parker Fondren was one of those who gave his life in service to our country during the same war that spared Jim Garey. Parker was there during the liberation of Rome on June 5, 1944 . . . and died in battle three days later, 45 miles from the city. Buried in Nettuno, Italy at the time, he was later moved to the national cemetery at Shiloh. Although he was finally home, it was probably very little comfort to his wife and infant daughter.
How many times did families open the door to find military personnel or their representatives bearing bad news? How many times did telegrams arrive announcing the death of someone they loved? And how many nights did families go to bed, grateful that today was not that day . . . knowing that tomorrow could be?
In all of those pictures that graced Facebook this weekend and Monday, I believed I saw a certain sadness hiding behind the smiles. Perhaps it was my reflecting that put it there, but I’m sure every person in uniform . . . and everyone who loved them . . . understood what their future might hold. I’m glad we have a day set aside to honor their service. I just hope we don’t forget that many of them gave years of their lives . . . and some of them paid the ultimate price. Maybe one day isn’t really enough.