Where Have All the Soldiers Gone?

I recently heard someone ask, "What's the big deal about being a veteran? Why are we giving these guys so much attention?" This was quite a contrast to the "thank you for your service" I often hear going through TSA's airport security line, retired ID in hand. Still, despite the bluntness, I found these questions provoked a period of reflection, rather than caused any offense.

I believe our society makes a "big deal" over today's veterans, appropriately, out of gratitude. We are, or should be, thankful that those currently and formerly in uniform pledged their lives to defend our country, its citizens and our democratic society. This, alone, is worthy of the homage extended. However, there are unseen sacrifices and consequences of military life that also call for our thanks.

Two examples of how military service can impact one's life are seen in the experiences of a friend and his father. The latter, drafted into the Army during World War I, served in the 32nd "Red Arrow" Division alongside the National Guard of Michigan and Wisconsin. He participated in the Meuse-Argonne campaign, was gassed in the trenches east of Meuse, and was shot in the leg days before the Armistice.

For the next 40 years, this veteran walked with a limp (due to the "shortening" of the wounded leg). Later in his life, he contracted tuberculosis (thanks, in part, to German gas). This required his quarantine, even from family, for years at a time, as he was moved from one VA facility to another. He died, short of his 60th birthday, following a long and painful illness, the origin of which points to the battlefields of France.

The son, whose 14th birthday came shortly before his father's death, has little recollection of the man other than that he was always sick.

Unlike his dad, my friend enlisted directly out of high school and completed a career of more than 20 years. His service included a 1969 tour in Vietnam where he was deployed to the Mekong Delta and areas frequently the target of the defoliant Agent Orange.

As was the case with his father, it wasn't until years after his time in uniform that he was diagnosed with a "service related" illness. In his case it was lymphoma, a frequent result from Agent Orange exposure. While fully recovered today, six rounds of chemotherapy left a legacy of diabetes and severe neuropathy.

In restitution the U.S. government provides him a tax-fee disability payment of $400 per month. While minimal, it's four times what was provided to his father.

The purpose in sharing these examples is to illustrate what military service can entail, and the scars it can leave -- over a lifetime. Yet, if we are to have the military we need for an unsettled and often dangerous world, we must show those who follow that military service, while challenging, is also noble and valued by others.

Though reportedly not his exact words, the spirit of this George Washington "quote" definitely illustrates why we must honor veterans:

"The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportioned to how they perceive veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by our nation."

According to Time magazine (6/29/14) only 30 percent of those between ages 17 and 24 (from which most new recruits are drawn), can meet the criteria for military service (due to a lack of high school diploma, obesity, health, appearance (tattoos), or arrest record). Of those deemed eligible, fewer than 1 percent express any interest in military service.

Thus, it would seem that we have much to do, both in expressing gratitude to those who have served, and in demonstrating our case to those upon whom are dependent for a secure future. Our nation's defense is at stake.

John Ebersole, a Vietnam Veteran, served in the U.S. Coast Guard from 1962-1983.