Harriet Freiberger: Day to honor our military
Few people remember when they first heard the word “veteran,” but awareness of what it means has a lot to do with response to the national holiday Tuesday.
The day honors men and women who have served in the military defense of the United States of America. This straightforward statement of purpose should not awaken controversy, but it does just that, because generations see through different eyes.
Veterans have been returning home from wars as long as people have organized their fights against each other. How we think about them depends, not always upon their intent or personage, but rather upon our own.
The first half of the 20th century taught its lessons in capital letters, the Great Depression and two World Wars. In the second of those conflagrations, a man named Hitler sought world domination, and a direct attack by Japanese planes brought America into the front lines.
By 1950, when the nation’s population passed the 150 million mark, most adults knew veterans as friends or family. Flags of red, white and blue flew on street corners. Pride and patriotism flourished.
Then, only five years after 51 countries signed the new United Nations Charter that outlawed aggression, troops of Communist-ruled North Korea crossed the delineated border of its southern neighbor. America sent its youngsters and veterans, too, to fight in defense of South Korea. After three years, one month and two days, with 50,246 U.S. military personnel dead, veterans returned home from a brutal, frostbitten confrontation between East and West. No waving flags welcomed them, even for those who had undergone torture and starvation.
Love of country was quickly forgotten amid the rising tensions of the 1960s. With embarkation of American troops into yet another foreign territory, antiwar protests amplified and spilled into the streets. Veterans came home from Vietnam in 1975, fortunate not to be counted among the 58,000 dead or the 2500 POWS, only to find themselves recipients of all the hostility that had erupted during their overseas duty. Spit upon, derided and shunned in many instances, their service would remain unrecognized until the next century.
First steps toward a changing attitude led the next generation to watch on television as their contemporaries in the U.S. armed forces came to the aid of a tiny nation in the middle east. Negativism toward veterans was beginning to pass. Even those opposed to war recognized with respect the individuals who served. Once again parades and waving flags demonstrated appreciation of this nation’s power and its soldiers.
Then, as the 21st century began, an act of terrorism stunned America. Two decades and two wars later, opinions about the need for those wars differs, but now veterans who volunteered to serve are returning home. Do we have an understanding of what they mean to us?
Defense serves government’s primary purpose. The earth’s seven billion people look to their governments for protection against physical attack. In the U.S., elected representatives determine where and how defense is mobilized. Citizens vote either with approval or for change — the process a basic principle of this country.
This national holiday honors those who have placed themselves in harm’s way, protection against whatever might threaten the rest of us. Posting a flag today expresses something too seldom said: This is our country and, in spite of all our contention, we are joined in singular purpose.
Each of us can do our part to make this truly the land of the free and the home of the brave. Guaranteeing the freedom of those with whom we disagree, we guarantee freedom for ourselves. Our veterans remind us.
Harriet Freiberger has lived in the Elk River Valley since 1982.
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