By Steve Young
Over a recent holiday, I stopped in to Jewish War Veterans post 697 in Levittown, PA where I am a member, though in dues-paying name only. I live on the West Coast so my involvement is pretty much limited to receiving their monthly newsletters and using their holiday return address labels liberally, if you catch my living in Hollywood, left-leaning no-snow drift.
This particular JWV post -- Fegelson-Young-Feinberg -- was named after my father and two other original, now deceased, WW II veterans, and I have been a member for years. But it had been years since I actually attended a meeting. In fact, when I was young I had been reticent to be part of any group that separated itself by name. Didn't that mean you were different, or worse, better than another group? My youthful idealism, right along with my youthful ignorance, kept me from gathering the real story. This meeting was that story.
Here were men and women who, for the most part, received their veteran status through their involvement in World War II and the Korean conflict when they were in their teens and twenties. Over fifty years ago, most of these vets are now in their late 70's and 80's, retired from business and looking little like the young, healthy and enthusiastic individuals they were when they fought bravely protecting our country. Now their children are too old to serve. Many of their grandchildren are passing the age of service.
They had trouble rising from their seats and walked slowly, if they still could walk, to the lectern to speak. Their voices were low, raspy from age and those who were trying to listen weren't having it much easier.
In many ways, observing this group, with their youth harder to recall with each passing year, it would at first seem rather sad. That is until you start to listen to what they were saying or you follow their plodding gait to where they planned to lend a hand next. Then it was like these old warriors had taken a delightful swim in the pool from "Cocoon" where they emerged from the wrinkled cloak of age and seemed to pick up right from where they were when they wore their uniforms of country, to again, fight the good fight.
Know what these old coots were up to? For one, anything that has to do with veterans affairs, from writing letters to get more aid for those brothers and sister veterans who will never get out of the hospital to picking up the utensils and feeding those who no longer can manage for themselves. And it's not like they take the easy route.
I went with a number of 697 Post members on a rather harrowing Christmas morning drive to suburban Pennsylvania Veterans Hospital; through snow and ice, on more than a 100 mile slippery round trip up the Pennsylvania Turnpike to Coateville so that they could share some smiles and company with their interred and invalid comrades. My fellow passengers, these near eight decade old youngsters, who had faced down death in actual combat, now laughed hysterically at stories they had heard many times before and here I was holding the arm rest so tight my fingerprints still remained months after I returned to my warm and un-icy west coast home. What a man.
But when we arrived at our destination, the greeting from the staff and those damaged veterans who have called this hospital "their home," many since they left the service to their country, it made clear why we were there. The indtitued vets understood for that moment that they weren't forgotten and instantly my icy-road anxieties and my doubts about the meaning of Veterans associations, became insignificant and embarrassingly selfish. No one asked what religion or what political party was holding the fork or receiving the food. No one asked how fast you could walk or how different one was from another. This was not about being divided. This was truly about bringing together and being of service.
But hospital visits are just a small part of what the veterans groups stand for. Nationwide, on a daily basis, they continue their battles on the front lines helping their communities; collecting food, clothing, bottle caps and anything else that they might bring hope to those in need. Whether caring for elderly veterans or cradling sick infants, they are on hand helping out at the hospitals and retirement homes. They are at the blood banks, working with the mentally ill, placing flags at the graves of our fallen heros, supporting the Holocaust exhibits, lobbying our lawmakers to not forget those who sacrificed for our freedoms, telling their stories at schools, always available to do whatever needs to be done for those who may not be able to do for themselves, showing that you never need stop being of service, even when you're out of the service.
And while this particular story is about a particular Jewish War Veterans post, the same story applies to all veterans groups; the American Legion, Veteran of Foreign Wars, AmVets and so many others, no matter what war, no matter what belief, no matter actual veteran or auxiliary.
As Abraham Lincoln once said..."To Care for Him who Shall Have Borne the Battle, and for his Widow and his Orphan..." To that I might add, "lest we forget their true worth."
I ask you, no matter whether you be Christian, Jew, Muslim, agnostic or atheist; Democrat or Republican; liberal or conservative, honor these gems of the past, for they continue to do the work of today.
Not only to be praised on Memorial Day. But on every day.
To every single veteran whoever donned the uniform. Thanks for what you did. Thanks for what you continue to do.
Steve Young is author of Great Failures of the Extremely Successful (www.greatfailure.com)