I walked downtown on Veteran’s Day to watch the annual parade. As I did I gave fleeting thought to a personal anniversary. Fifty years earlier I had enlisted in the Air Force. Four years later I was on a Continental Airlines 707 making its approach into Saigon. One of the enduring memories of that day was listening to Bing Crosby on the P.A. system – “I'll be seeing you in all the old familiar places that this heart of mine embraces.” I thought of home and family. I reminisced about playing stickball on Chatham Street. I thought about why I’d volunteered to go to Vietnam. About the only reason that came to mind was curiosity. I’d seen a photograph of a Montagnard tribesman several months earlier and thought it would be interesting to meet one of them. I knew next to nothing about geopolitics or the Domino Theory. Actually, things back home seemed quite safe and secure. Massachusetts wasn’t at war with New York, unless you count the Red Sox versus the Yankees. And, if that were true it seemed to me a very sane way to conduct a war. Two teams, representing their communities. Fans by the thousands paying to see the war unfold. A scoreboard. A final score. A winner, a loser, and bragging rights to be claimed. There would be very few injuries other than the occasional sprained ankle or torn ACL. There would be no body counts.
By the time I got to Fourth and Commercial, the parade was starting, with the color guard leading the way. As it has been since I’ve lived here it appeared to be the same five men as always marching five abreast. I’ve never met them, but I feel I know them. They were a year older and it showed. The limps were a bit more pronounced than they were last year. The spit and polish of short order drill seemed a distant memory. Their eyes revealed a mixture of the pain of sacrifice and loss along with the pride of having served and done their duty. Their faces were a bit more wrinkled and worn. They’re proud men and Emporia is proud to honor them every year.
That would have been enough for me. The marching bands, the cub scouts, boy scouts, girl scouts, the civic organizations, the motorcycles were fine. But for the life of me I don’t understand why politicians had to get into the middle of the festivities and muck things up. Can’t they just leave us alone to honor those who served? Can’t they just stand on the sidewalks with the rest of us and wave the flag? I’m thinking it might just be time for a city ordinance proclaiming all Veterans’ Day festivities to be pander free zones. If it were up to me I’d make it unlawful for politicians to sit in the back seat of cars and wave to the crowds on Veterans’ Day. I’d make it illegal for them to speechify. The service and sacrifice of our veterans speaks far more eloquently than the often empty words of politicians. The penalty for breaking the law would be a six month replacement tour of duty in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Congo, or wherever else our troops will be sent next. The law-breaking politicians would go. Worthy veterans would get to come home for some much needed rest and recuperation.
If there are any politicians reading this essay they’re probably thinking to themselves “Do you really expect me to give up an opportunity to politick or make a speech?”
Here’s what I expect, and I don’t think alone in my thinking. Go back to Washington or Topeka and start shouting from the housetops, “We can no longer allow a system where our men and women serve tour after tour after endless tour in harm’s way.” How can you possibly think that such is system is fair or just? The only answer I can come up with is that you’re totally detached from reality. The numbers bear me out. Only about 20% of our current legislators have ever served in the military. Less than 6% of those in the executive branch have ever served. It’s no wonder we get the endless deployments.
I capped the day off at the U.S.O. concert. I was especially moved by the boy scouts and girl scouts. My eyes were drawn to a young scout who was fidgeting a bit. I saw that he really wanted to get his three finger salute right. There was no doubt that he had the makings of a good soldier. In my mind’s eye I flashed into the future, wondering how many deployments this kid might have to someday endure. A lot, I’m afraid, unless our politicians leave the parades and decide to really fix the problem.