Every Veterans Day, I am asked to speak at two local assisted living facilities. I interview a couple of veteran residents who fought in World War II, and I tell of their experiences in the public gathering of other residents and their families. This is always humbling as I remind myself that these courageous men and women are becoming scarce among us, and we must not lose their stories. Here are a few thoughts on the “Greatest Generation.”
Twenty years ago, Tom Brokaw popularized the term “Greatest Generation” in his book about the courageous and tenacious men and women who overcame the Great Depression and fought in World War II. My generation that followed and the generations that follow me can never claim to have the grit of these forerunners. Some of those I have interviewed survived weeks of snow and freezing temperatures of the Belgian forests in the infamous Battle of the Bulge. Others jumped over bodies of fallen friends as they stormed the enemy-infested islands of the Pacific.
Certainly, there are equally brave combatants who have continued to answer the call of duty and risk their lives or die for our precious freedoms. Veterans of Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other military operations have sacrificed their lives, limbs, and innocence of youth on far-away battlefields. However, there is just something different about these heroes in their nineties–farmers, factory workers, business men, doctors, and students–who dropped everything to fight against the evil global invasions of the Germans and Japanese. A basic understanding of this war reveals how close the allies came to defeat. Only their selfless valor preserved the free world that we too often take for granted today.
Looking deeply into the failing eyes of former soldiers, sailors, marines, or airmen in their wheelchair-confined last years has given me glimpses of the once-young 1940’s souls. In the prime of life, this generation left schools, careers, and families to defend the homeland in a strange land. These warriors abandoned everything to make the comforts of our generation possible.
World War II veterans number about a half-million today, or about .1% of our population. The last American World War I veteran, Frank W. Buckles, died in 2011 at the age of 110. If the Lord grants me a long life, I suspect that, within the next 20 years, a news report will announce that the last veteran of World War II, the last hero of the “Greatest Generation,” has passed away. In the meantime, we must continue to hear their stories in person and tell them widely and often.
I encourage everyone to make whatever effort it takes to search out at least one veteran from this special era and become familiar with his or her story. If every American will do so, the “Greatest Generation” will live on in the minds and hearts of the next generation. Lest we forget.
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