Today I had the opportunity to do something that I would normally not have the chance to do. I spent my day at Channahon Junior High listening to veterans speak about their military experiences and answer questions from students. It was one of the most powerful days I’ve ever had.
I was proud as a peacock this morning when I arrived at the junior high accompanying my uncle Stanley who served two tours in Vietnam. I learned a lot about my uncle today. For instance, I learned that he was at Hamburger Hill. I remember watching that movie for a class I took in college (Vietnam in Film and Literature — probably the best class I ever had). I was surprised to learn that someone I know and love would have first-hand knowledge as to the authenticity of that film. He. Was. There. Suddenly, that movie became more than a movie.
The kids spent time preparing questions in the class periods before today. One of the questions that came up had to do with the way Vietnam vets were received when they returned home compared to the way vets are received now upon their return home. One thing that struck me was how apparent it was that the Iraqi war vets felt angered that such an injustice was paid to their fellow veterans. It was written on their faces and loud and clear in their voices. They could not express enough how utterly wrong it was that servicemen returning home from Vietnam were treated so deplorably. Then my uncle told a story. He said that four years ago on a family trip to Minnesota, he was stopped by someone who saw the hat he was wearing — his 101st Airborne Screaming Eagles baseball cap. The person shook my uncle’s hand and told him thank you for his service. My uncle Stan said that was the first time anyone had ever thanked him. My heart fell to the floor. Four years ago was 2010. He left Vietnam in 1970. That’s 40 years. In 40 years, no one had ever shook his hand and acknowledged the sacrifices he made in his service and sense of duty to this country. I was speechless. Now that I think of it, I’ve never thanked him for his service. So I will do it now and I will do it the next time I see him. That being said, I got choked up seeing the students come up to my uncle and all the other visiting veterans after each class and shake their hands and say, “Thank you.” I could see on every one of their faces how much that small gesture means to them.
One of the visiting vets, a Marine, told a story about being in Iraq for their first democratic elections. The roads were closed for security and he was on patrol when he saw a man coming up the road pushing a shopping cart. In the cart was the man’s father who said that he was old and didn’t expect to live much longer but he wanted the opportunity to vote like a free man. So his son did the only thing he could do. He brought his father to vote. They couldn’t come in a car and they lived far away. He pushed his elderly father in a cart for miles and miles and miles for the opportunity to cast his vote. Again, this story made my heart stop. I shook my head and marveled at the lengths to which these men went to cast their vote, and I also marveled at how easy it is for people in this country to skip voting because they don’t like the weather or they’re too busy or they just don’t want to go vote. My God. We need to see our ability to vote like that old Iraqi man. We should be willing to walk miles to do it, or ride in a shopping cart the whole way if that’s what it takes.
Lunch was catered in for the visiting vets as well as the staff. As I was eating my lunch, I looked around and saw all these representatives of the military talking with the teachers over lunch, and I thought how incredibly fortunate we were to have a private audience with these brave and dedicated men and woman (we had only one female vet today). We got to sit elbow to elbow with these heroes and hear their stories. It was magical. I’m not being overly dramatic — it truly was.
As we come up on Veterans’ Day, let me say from the bottom of my heart — thank you to all those who have served our country, and thank you to those who are doing it right now. I can never find words enough to express my gratitude. Please keep sharing your stories because I feel like I am a better citizen because of what you teach me.