Harriet Freiberger: What are Americans thinking on this Nov. 11?
What does it mean to be a veteran? The word itself speaks, penetrates the depths of who we are. The mirror of today’s vantage point carries ghosts of the past and monoliths of the future. For great-grandchildren of soldiers who climbed the hills at Normandy , pride smiles back from that image. But grandchildren of the men and women who came home from Vietnam view the same looking-glass and find only conflict and anger.
This 21st century’s viewpoint magnifies ancient swords from long-standing conflicts in the Middle East. The War against Terrorism has brought Americans into a new way of seeing ourselves, reflected in the mirror of veterans’ eyes. They stand apart, guardians against — what?
That question touches upon what the veteran represents. Lacking the answer, we have little to leave as inheritance to future generations. This national holiday prompts us to honor the men and women who have served in the Armed Forces of the United States of America. Though it is impossible to grasp the magnitude of what they have witnessed, having them in our midst offers an opportunity to gain a greater understanding of something we too often fail to appreciate.
In one sense, everyone is a veteran, growing older, encountering life. Singular events affect us and our feelings about others. But, in combat, soldiers meet such moments as ongoing and ever present, indescribable wounds that pierce one’s innermost being, barrages of emotions that separate them from everything except the threat to themselves and persons next to them.
Effects multiply exponentially with each step forward through the rest of their lives. Long after they have left behind dark nights in trenches and sun-scorched roadways pockmarked by explosion of yesterday’s roadway bombs, time pulls along those who have fought.
War has sent Americans to the battlefield during four different centuries. Back in April 1875, before the Declaration of Independence, some 700 British troops marched northwest from Boston overnight to destroy colonists’ munitions stored at Concord. At dawn, they met up with 70 Minutemen armed and waiting on Lexington’s village green and firing began. Then, six miles beyond, at Concord’s North Bridge, hundreds more Americans joined the fight. Finally, villagers and farmers from the neighboring countryside joined in attacking the redcoats making their way back to Boston. That day 95 Patriots died, as did 273 British soldiers. Within two months’ time, George Washington assumed command of thousands and independence lay ahead.
Veterans of the Revolutionary War became “Founders” of the United States of America. The words of 91-year-old veteran Captain Levi Preston have been passed down in history books, answering the “why” of their struggle against British rule: “We had always governed ourselves, and we always meant to. They didn’t mean we should.”
This day compels us to see what life would be without freedom and to reach for that strength of purpose which raises veterans above the political fray. Only soldiers and their families know the true cost of war. Their presence speaks with a rare combination of grace and determination of what it is that makes such a price worthwhile. Their endurance sustains the rest of us.
Facing the past, I think back to last May, the day after Memorial Day. Sunset shadowed the mountains to the west and I sat in quiet stillness on a bench at the edge of the cemetery’s parade ground. All the flags of red, white and blue were gone, but the scent of freshly cut grass lingered, reminding me that our living veterans remain very much with us.
On this Nov. 11, I and many other Americans look up to you., guardians of the future.
Harriet Freiberger has been a resident of Routt County since 1982.
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