Last Veteran’s day, my granddaughter and I finally made it downtown to watch the big parade. Big to her, but to me, a waste of time. After all, who would turn out to watch a bunch of old pot bellied, flag waving guys marching down main street after all these years?
OK, there is a new war going on, but its borders and front lines are not all that distinct, and the enemy may be the person they wave at as they drive along foreign streets hoping a road-side bomb won’t be the last sound they hear. And, sure, there are millions of veterans still living from WW II, and Korea, and Vietnam, and other less named conflicts that nevertheless produced a new bunch of soldiers that are now mostly ignored except when elections roll around. Or so I thought until four years ago.
We stood back away from the curb, my granddaughter and me and I saw an old guy lean forward and peer down the street at the oncoming veterans and the flag they carried. He smoothed back his hair, what was left of it, and then I noticed a small lapel pin, a Purple Heart he had carefully attached for the occasion.
I wondered, “Where did you get that, old man?” I pictured him hunkered down beside others in his platoon, wet and scared and checking their rifles and ammo, knowing any minute the enemy would try to take their hilltop one more time. Already he had seen several buddies go down, guys he had trained with and grew to respect and love, perhaps more than his own family. Then I thought, maybe, like my brothers he was a Navy or Marine guy and had also crouched down as the landing craft’s front gate fell open with a crash and he was out and struggling through chest deep water as the whine of high powered machine gun bullets whizzed by his ears. He heard the thuds and last gasps of his comrades as they sank beneath the salty waters never reaching the beach of a nameless island. But still he struggled on, there was no turning back now, no place to hide.
As he leaned forward again, looking down the street, at seeing the parade veterans pausing and the flag slightly dipping, he wiped sweat from his wrinkled brow, but kept his place without flinching. I wondered, “Did you get that Purple Heart that day? How many friends fell around you? Have you kept track of them all these years later?” Then, because I too was waiting for the passing of our flag, I pictured him driving one of Patton’s tanks and perhaps even hearing “Old Blood and Guts,” telling his Third Army, how proud he would be to serve with them “anytime, anywhere.” And if he did, for the rest of his life, when anyone would ask where he served, he would only answer, “Well, I served with Patton.” That was enough. That pride of helping to save the world spoke for millions of men and women who served our country bravely and without expecting to have a parade. Most, if not all, just wanted to be able to come home.
Home to America, the shining light in a world filled with darkness and fear. Home to America, where new laws were passed to allow those who would embrace her to have the right to vote, to practice their religion, or just have friends over for a Bar-B-cue on a quiet weekend afternoon. Then the sudden banging of drums and a few bugles, some slightly off key, signaled the approach of the old veterans and our flag.
Just before I turned to look at the parade, I saw the old guy, still proud of his Purple Heart, stand as straight as he could, and then his gnarled old hand snapped up to his brow in a perfect salute. The years may have had their way with his body, but as tears rolled down his leathery cheeks, I knew he hadn’t forgot for one minute those he served with so long ago. I turned and as I too snapped up my hand to my brow and gave my very best salute, my granddaughter tugged at my sleeve, “It’s OK, Granddad, I know why you are crying, I love the flag too.”
And together, we stood and saluted all those veterans who so proudly carried the American Flag down our hometown streets, and those who never came home. When it passed by and my hand came down I turned and glanced back at the old veteran. He had remained standing with his hands held tightly by his side, as he had once stood years ago in the military. But I could just make out that his eyes had a distant look about them. He was almost squinting, as if he were seeing scenes no one else could see, and hearing voices no one else would hear again.
I knew then he was alone, and missed with an aching heart all those who, like he, were at one time, soldiers and young and gave their all for their country. “Give him that card,” my granddaughter insisted. “Oh, I don’t know, honey, he may think I want money or something from him. There are so many veterans that have lost contact with their old buddies and are alone now. Do you really think it a makes much difference to so many who are alone now?”
She took the card from my hand, saying, “Well, it will to this one, Grandpa.” And she marched over to the old veteran and tugged at his sleeve. He turned, his face darkened until he saw it was just a little girl. She smiled at him, and how could a veteran not return the smile of a little Girl Scout in uniform?
“Excuse me, sir,” I heard her say, “Please take this card and go to the library as soon as you can and give it to the librarian.” He slowly shook his head at first, but then said, “I don’t see so well, and I forgot my glasses, what does it say?” She nodded and read the card loudly, “It just says, “Attention, librarians, this veteran needs to find his former comrades. Please turn on a computer for him, bring up a search engine and type in the name of his unit and show him how to say hello to his friends. Thanks, We owe him that much, and more.”
I looked around and noticed we had drawn a small crowd of older people. One or two smiled and nodded at her and to my surprise, he took the card and right in front of God and everybody, he saluted her, and once again tears ran down his cheek. “Thank you, my young scout, and God bless you for thinking of me.” She came to attention and returned his salute and waited until he brought his hand down before she did as well.
“Do you think I have a chance of finding some of them,” he asked. She turned to me and smiled, “My grandpa found over 2,000 of those who served like him at the Air Base in Misawa, Japan. They are called Silent Warriors, because of the work they did for our country. They call themselves, Misawans in America, but they are all former Air Force men and women.”
For the first time he looked at me and I too saluted, and his wrinkled old face was now full of life and he smiled this time and returned my salute as well. “You have quite a helper here. So you served in Japan? Well, young airman, I would have too, but the war ended just before we would have had to land there and take it by force. God be with you, sir.”
I returned his prayer, “And God be with you, sir, and I hope you find some of your old comrades.” He laughed, “Now if I could only find, “Pork chops,” that would be something. I heard he lives in Chicago, but that was years ago.” I nodded, “It’s worth the trip to the library unless you have a computer or know someone who does. By the way, don’t you belong to a veteran’s group?”
He shook his head, “Oh no, I have heard most of them smoke and have drinks together, and I can’t do either of those activities now. But it sure would be nice to talk to old Pork chops and a few others.” I nodded and three young women came to me and asked if I had an extra card or two. “For my father,” “For my grandfather.” A fourth woman, not so young, with misty eyes, asked for a card and whispered, “I lost my husband years ago and he is still carried as MIA. I sure would like to know if any of his friends that knew him are still alive and could tell me anything they knew about him. He was also an airman, like you.”
I nodded, “We have a list of MIAs and call those who have passed on, ‘Fallen Eagles,’ and that list of names is for everyone to read and remember with pride how those too, served their country with pride and distinction and are not forgotten.” She nodded and tried to smile, then shook my hand as my granddaughter returned. The old veteran called out, “What is your name, honey? How can I thank you?”
She smiled and said, “Why, sir, my name is Julie. We so hope you can find your friend, Pork chops, that lives in Chicago.” He called out to us as we walked away, “God be with you, Julie, and you sir.” I waved and smiled. Julie looked up at me and said, “Well, I guess telling him how to try and make contact with old Pork chops will make a difference.”
I laughed, “OK, Julie, you win. I guess finding just one friend when you believe you are all alone and your service forgotten, can make a big difference.” Julie looked up and me and smiled, “It did to you, didn’t it?” I smiled at her, “I think I owe you something for your help, my young scout.”
She giggled and replied, “Did I ever tell you I love red hats, and you, grandpa?”
In fact: One woman, Helen Henderson, in search of a few former friends from her years serving in the US Air Force Security Service at Misawa Air Base, Japan, created a web site on MyFamily.com. Within four years, she not only found many of her former friends, but helped unite over 2,500 others who served there at various times and now chat on-line every day. They have created their own annual National Reunion and look forward to a another next year. Her story is one of dedication and love, and those who find her site, reunite with old friends and make new ones they have yet to meet face to face.