Harriet Freiberger: Veterans — 100 years ago, 100 years from now
One hundred years ago, the War to End All Wars ended. Soldiers sailed for home. Today, no living American possesses the memory of being one of the 3,000,000 who crossed the Atlantic to fight against Germany and the Central Powers.
War has not ended. What does it mean to remember?
Two and a half centuries ago, the United States of America originated with conflict. The Revolution’s Continental soldiers lived to see their country divide under Generals Grant and Lee. In turn, their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren became combatants, soldiers dispatched by Congress to defend the growing nation. Over one million have died in faraway lands and seas. Survivors returned home; they became veterans.
Among us today, they live and work, their yesterdays a vital part of who they are. What about the rest of us ? Five days ago, we the people spoke. Leaders were elected. What’s next?
Divided among ourselves about how to find the answer to that question, we forget — a lot — and the past blurs. Somehow, we have lost track of how we got here, to this day.
Americans have grown into a mix of peoples, some few descended from native tribes who inhabited North America before European settlers arrived, many descended from slaves transported by force from another continent. Through the years, refugees and builders have traveled over oceans and continents to the myths and truths of the American West, escapees from where there existed no chance of bettering themselves or where hunger and desperation were all that was. They sought to make life worthwhile.
Beneficiaries of their bravery and recipients of history, most of us, in order to become Americans, have needed only to be born. We have not offered up our lives to make citizenship happen.
Are we slowly but surely slipping into the emptiness of cultural Alzheimer’s? The debilitating disease can deplete our country as it does the individuals who have lost connection with time past. If history disappears, we shall exist in a morass of murky clouds, unable to differentiate between what was and what is.
Veterans know. In foxholes dug along hillsides of Iwo Jima, in outposts of Middle Eastern deserts, under attack from poison gas, downed by machine guns and expelled into the sea from torpedoed ships, they have learned about themselves and about the man or woman next to them. They have learned under fire the ultimate reason for fighting.
Must we all face battlefield horrors before we figure out that we can work together to make our country what it needs to be — for each of us, for all of us. Our struggles have resulted in growth toward ideals of liberty and justice that two centuries ago were barely conceivable. Veterans stand as guideposts marking the intersections of history.
From one generation to the next, our young children experience what they cannot yet name when they reach up to shake the hands of veterans and sing the words: “You have our backs. You always do. You know that we rely on you.”
One hundred years ago, the United States abandoned neutrality, entering into a war that promised to “keep the world safe for democracy.” First-generation immigrants numbered some 18 percent of the American military. They may not have spoken the language of their new country, but they claimed it as their own and returned home — veterans.
Remembering them, we can avoid the disability of forgetting. Recognizing their presence in our midst, we, the people, can begin to see and hear each other, strengthening the common ground we share.
One hundred years from now is up to each of us, to all of us. Our veterans show us the way.
Harriet Freiberger has lived in the Elk River Valley since 1982.
Editor’s note: On this Veterans Day, U.S. veterans number over 18 million, more than 1,300 in Routt County.
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