In 1998, I was a young major commanding the US Army health clinic in Schweinfurt, Germany. It was the middle of a morning of patient care, and I was a little ahead of schedule. An older gentleman wielding a cane walked slowly into my exam room. He asked how long I had been in the Army and thanked me for my service. By his age, and the fact that he had retired in Germany, I suspected that he was a veteran of World War II, the European theater.
“Thank you,” I said, “but tell me about your military service.”
“I was in the Army in World War II,” he replied.
“What unit were you with?” I asked.
He continued, looking a little hesitant. “I was a Ranger.”
Following a hunch, I inquired, “Were you with the 2/75th Rangers?”
“Then you climbed Point du Hoc in Normandy on 6 June 1944, against a German coastal battery with infantry, in one of the toughest actions of Omaha Beach in World War II?”
“Yes.” He looked down, but smiled a little.
“Sir,” I replied. “I need to thank you for your service. I can only hope to do in decades in my military career what you and your comrades did in a single day.”
The older gentleman smiled, a little surprised that anyone remembered what he and his unit had done over 50 years before. The visit went well, and I never saw him again. It shames me that I don’t remember his name, lost among thousands of patients over the course of my time in uniform.
Armistice Day, 11 Nov 1918, was the day that World War I, the “War to end all wars,” ended. In 1954, after an even more terrible war, Armistice Day was changed to Veteran’s Day.
The men and women that we honor on Veteran’s Day are often very much like my patient that morning in Germany. They work hard and don’t ask a lot in return. They have experiences, and heroism, that few can even imagine, much less understand. They rarely speak of what they did, what happened to them, and the burdens they bear as a result. Many are passing from among us, and the world loses a treasure trove of wisdom with each final breath.
It is incumbent upon all Americans to honor, on Veteran’s Day, those who gave some, or gave all, to defend them. It is incumbent upon all veterans to live in such a way as to honor those who went before, those who will come after, and the great country in which we are blessed to live.