Whether it’s Veteran’s Day, Memorial Day, or the 4th of July, we have many men and women to be thankful for —Veterans to honor —People who have put their lives on the line for us.
Many of them may be your mom or dad, grandma or grandpa, aunt or uncle.
Have they told you their stories?
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496,777—That’s the number of World War II vets still alive in the United States (as of Sept 30th, 2019). Most of these men and women are in their late 80s and 90s, with the oldest, Lawrence Brooks, just turning 110.
Their narratives? The National WWII Museum works to preserve them before the voices are gone. (The last WWI vet passed away in 2011.)
But other veterans have stories, too.
- Korean War Vets? 2016 figures counted 2.25 million living, with most now between 85-89.
- Vietnam? 850,000 veterans are living, with the wide age range of 59 to 101. Sadly, we’re losing these brave men and women as fast as their WWII parents.
Of course, there are also vets from the Grenada invasion (Operation Urgent Fury), both Gulf Wars (Desert Shield/Storm and Iraqi/Afghanistan), and those who’ve served in peace times throughout.
All in different places and different ages, but with their own stories.
For these courageous men and women, standing up for the American way of life is more than something you do at a parade. They’ve done it with much sacrifice.
So how can we really honor them—especially as many reach an age where they feel they’ve lost the very independence they’ve fought so hard for?
Pull Up a Chair—”Tell It Again, Grandpa”
They may have shared the stories a thousand times.
But if we enjoy an afternoon at their assisted living facility and just sit and listen—and maybe even set up a free recording to share with generations later—we may be surprised at the new details we hear.
You’ve Got Questions? They’ll Have Answers
Maybe they’ve NEVER shared their stories.
- It could be they didn’t feel they could because of security issues.
The fascinating book Code Girls tells the true story of women in WWII who tirelessly—but secretly—worked to crack codes of the Germans and Japanese. Without their successes, many more American service men and women would have died.
But, 75 years later, many of these women still haven’t told anyone they were lifesaving heroes.
- It could be the memories have been too painful. Or they didn’t feel like anyone took the time to really listen.
WWI vets were called the “Lost Generation” because war brought them back completely disillusioned.
Vietnam vets? Their homecoming was brutal.
Korean and Grenada vets often state no one even remembers there was a war at all.
If we gently ask them what they can share, how they felt, how it’s been hard, we could be the ears they’ve been longing for.
Break Out the Popcorn—It’s Movie/ Book Night
If they’ve kept the stories buried for a long time, we may need to prime the pump. Several true stories and movies about WWII have come out recently.
- Louis Zamperini was shot down in the Pacific and then survived POW conditions in Japan.
- You’ve got the choice of book or movie for his biography in Unbroken.
- Or read it from his own words in his autobiography, Devil at My Heels.
- Private First-Class Desmond T. Doss apparently stated he saved the lives of fifty men. But those who were there said it was really double that. He saved one hundred.
- Check your local library for his page-riveting biography, The Unlikeliest HERO The Story of Pfc Desmond T. Doss.
- Or enjoy the inspiring movie, Hacksaw Ridge.
Go easy here. Emotions and memories may still be too raw to get through these movies.
But the accounts could also help them release the dam they’ve been sustaining. We can encourage them to explain how their experiences were similar or different.
Ask for pictures. Ask for names. Ask what they learned. Ask what their job was.
Each story we let them tell recognizes them for the heroes that they are.
Remember Those Left Behind
We often celebrate the ones who put on the uniforms. But don’t forget the loved ones who let them go—mothers, fathers, wives, children.
The perfect example? Saving Private Ryan, the movie based on the true WWII story of the Niland brothers: the military set out to rescue one son because his mother had already lost three others. That tale could represent all the families waiting and worrying about the veterans they miss.
So just because Grandma or Grandpa, Mom or Dad didn’t join the military, you can still ask how Veteran’s Day, Memorial Day, 4th of July hit them.
- Have they lost veteran friends? family?
- Were they separated for long months at a time? (Even if their soldiers never went to a war, they may have been stationed continents apart.)
- And when those veterans returned home, things may still have not been the same—Some memories don’t fade easily…And if buddies were still out there in harm’s way, it’s hard to be home.
So while we’re honoring the military, take a moment to ask for stories from those who have loved them. They’ve sacrificed, too.
Freedom isn’t free. It cost someone something.
Whether our veterans and their loved ones are 20 or 80, live at home or in senior living, we still owe them a great deal of thanks.
To ALL the military men, women, and families out there, Thank you for your service.
To the Korean and Grenada vets, We remember.
And to those who served in Vietnam, Welcome home!
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Elizabeth Daghfal is a writer, teacher, speaker, and community volunteer. When she isn't teaching or writing-- Who are we kidding? Her husband and five kids say she's ALWAYS teaching and writing. She has a passion to help people who are struggling and is happy to say her shoulders are drip-dry. Born and raised in the South, she now lives in Wisconsin and loves it--except for the fifteen months of winter. Read more about her at elizabethdaghfal.com.