In recent years we have done a good job as a society of recognizing those among us that have sacrificed in the name of our country by serving in the armed forces, especially those that have given the ultimate sacrifice in the line of duty. I still have a feeling that part of this is due to the horrific treatment some returning veterans had to endure after Vietnam not only from the media but also from their fellow citizens in general. But overall, this country has done its part in recognizing the service and sacrifices of our veterans. We have enacted federal and state holidays to recognize those who have served and died, erected monuments in their honor and made songs and movies of their deeds. Sure, there are the Fred Phelps (not a preacher of MY God) of the world that will continue to bash our troops for insane reasons and the “elitists” that continue to look down upon our military, but the average American has a huge amount of respect for our service men and women. At least that has been my experience here in the Heartland of Middle America.
To tell you the truth sometimes it’s a bit embarrassing to be recognized as a veteran. Its not that I don’t appreciate the gesture, I do, but its hard to explain to somebody that something that was just a part (sometimes mundane part) of your past is just that, your past. People don’t grow and move forward by constantly looking backward. There is a time and place for it of course (like recollections on this blog) but people who are stuck in the past always stay there. We all know that one guy who was a star athlete or popular in high school that you see at your 20th anniversary and is still living the same life he did at 18 and reliving the “glory days” too hard. Anyway, the truth is those parts of my life are behind me now, and to tell you the truth a lot of them were not that exciting. My overseas tour was just that, a tour. I knew that due to my back (I had spinal fusion surgery in ‘04) I would forever be a “REMF” and that my duty would most likely be mundane and administrative. It was for the most part. I came home on schedule and pretty much knew going in that there was a pretty good chance I was coming out. A lot of people over in the sandbox are like that. They go and serve in relatively safe confines supporting those that go outside the FOB to confront the enemy. To have someone thank you like you were some type of hero or provided some great service is kind of…well, underwhelming to hear and know that they are talking about you. At least now after 10 years of conflict in GWOT many of the people that may say “thank you for your service” upon identifying you as a veteran do so more out of politeness I think than anything else and its no big deal.
Now Applebee's and their free lunch for veterans on Veterans Day…I could do with that recognition a lot more!!
Like I said above, my tour and most tours overseas are set to a limited time frame. You go over, do your duty for a year or so and then come back. Some troops have done multiple tours over there. The Army generally does 12 – 18 month tours, the Navy and Marines do 4 – 8 months and the Air Force flies in, touches down to get tax exempt status for being in a combat zone for the month and then takes off before happy hour back at the club state side. Actually they do some really weird tour lengths like anything from a couple of weeks to over a year depending on their mission. I guess you can come and go as you like when you own your own transportation.
Some guys that were not so fortunate to know when they would (or if they would) come home were our veterans of WW2. Some of those guys were called into federal service in 1940 by President Roosevelt from National Guard and reserve units and did not get discharged until 1946 or 1947 after the war. For many others drafted into the military after the war started they may have fought in several bloody campaigns before wars end. I know the 101st Airborne has gotten a lot of press in recent years due to Band of Brothers, but while they were training in Georgia and England for D-Day, the men of “leg” divisions such as the 3rd Infantry Division were invading North Africa and Sicily and were actually on the main European Continent when D-Day occurred. No matter what the unit you were assigned to, one thing was certain. You were not going home anytime soon. Even the “points’ system that awarded a man points to be earned toward a discharge based on length of service, awards earned and injuries would not ensure a speedy return to America in a years time. These guys (and girls) were in it for the long haul. Now that is hardship.
At the church that my family stated attending this fall there is a bench with a plaque on it outside the man doors that reads “In memory of our boys who gave their lives in World War II”. It is typical of many such monuments to these warriors erected by small communities and organizations across the nation after the war. It makes me sad that over time these smaller memorials will slowly disappear. I am sure that there were similar memorials after the War of 1812, Mexican American War, Civil War and so on…but as the people that fought in them and those that loved them pass away these smaller memorials tend to fade away as well.
In the church itself there is a document on the wall dedicated to and listing the names of all of the members of the church that served in the war. There are five names above all others on the list with gold stars next to them. These are the names of the “boys” that the bench are dedicated to, those that left for an uncertain future that did not return at all.
The use of both blue and gold star banners to recognize the service and sacrifice of family members during war is unique to this country and dates back to WW1. It is a means for a family to be recognized for their sacrifice in giving a loved one to military service and unfortunately also to recognize the families of service members that have died. Interestingly enough this practice has roots here in Ohio. As a matter of fact it was an Ohioan, Colonel (Retired) Robert L. Queisser of East Cleveland, Ohio who both created the custom and got it pushed into public law both in the state and at the federal level. According to an interview in 1917 Colonel Queisser described his motivations for creating the service flags:
“During the early part of last March,” said Queisser, “I was confined in bed following an automobile accident near Fort Wayne, Indiana, where I was stationed with the Fifth Ohio Infantry. It was during my illness that I was mustered out of service, due to the disability caused by injuries received. I thought of some visible signs for a mother to show that her son was serving the country rather than have her feel an emptiness about the house which would depress her. A service flag then came to me and after several days I evolved the design.”
The traditional custom has used two colored stars, blue and gold. Blue denotes the family with a member currently serving in the military while a gold star denotes a family whose member was killed while in service. It was not unusual to see families with multiple stars of either one or both colors during WW2 as the huge number of men and women involved directly in the conflict caused families to have multiple members serving at the same time. Currently there is a movement to use a silver star to denote service members injured or discharged due to wounds received in combat, but it is not an official color prescribed by the US institute of Heraldry.
One family that knew these flags all too well was the Sullivan family of Waterloo, Iowa. All five of the brothers Al, George, Frank, Joe and Matt enlisted in the Navy together after their sister’s boyfriend was killed in the attack at Pearl Harbor. All five, against Navy regulations, were assigned to the USS Juneau and all five also died during or directly after the sinking of that vessel in the war. The loss was so dramatic to the family and the town that immediate laws were enacted re-establishing the existing regulations and forbidding such assignments in the future. The brothers story was immortalized in the 1944 move “The Fighting Sullivans “. The movie is very propaganda strong as would be expected for any picture of the time made during the war, especially considering the subject matter. The story of the Sullivan brothers is so well known it has lasted and was part of the basis for the movie Saving Private Ryan about a squad of Rangers sent to bring back the only surviving son of the Ryan family during the confusion of the Normandy landings after all of his siblings were killed on the same day. Mrs. Sullivan and the blue and gold star flags were even the subject of a song called, appropriately, Sullivan, by the band Caroline Spine.
I thinks its such a cool song I am including the lyrics and tune below (the actual video is great, I can not find it anywhere on the web though)
It's not hard to reach back to the day
underneath an Iowa sun.
running to the tower of waterloo, looking
for the sullivan train to come.
His five boys would run to the top and
salute him as he went bye.
First we'd wave hello.
Then we'd wave goodbye.
It's not hard to reach back to the days
after the attack on Pearl.
Overnight my buddies turned into men, run-
ning out of time for games and girls.
The Sullivan boys were not overlooked
Uncle Sam calling each by name.
The very next day they left on a mystery
Say goodbye, bye, bye, Mrs. Sullivan
don't you cry, cry, cry, cry, cry.
"We regret to inform you
the Navy has taken your sons away."
So put your blue star in the window.
It's not hard to reach back to her smile,
when she received the letter.
The ltters, they sounded generally the
same it said: "If they couldn't
be home, at least they were together on a
mighty fighting battleship,
somewhere in the south pacific."
The letters never got much more specific.
Say goodbye, bye, bye, mrs sullivan
don't you cry, cry, cry, cry, cry.
"we regret to inform you
the Navy is keeping your sons away."
All five, five, five, five.
So keep your blue star in the window.
It's not hard to reach back to the day
when the war finally came home.
Uncle Sam will send you a telegram, so he
doesn't have to tell you over the phone.
I heard she cracked up, when they found
out what the war had cost,
and all five of her boys were lost.
Say goodbye Mrs. Sullivan
go ahead and cry.
"We regret to inform you that all your sons
have passed away."
So change your blue star to gold.
I dare you to listen to it and listen to the words after knowing the story and not feel a little bit choked up.
The navy has launched two separate warships named after the brothers. Currently, the latest incarnation the USS The Sullivans, DDG-68, is an Aegis class cruiser serving in the War on Terror.