Anybody who lived through the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations of the 1960s and early 1970s recalls, with disgust, that many U.S. servicemen returning from the combat zone in Southeast Asia were spat on, insulted and sometimes even physically assaulted.
Even worse were the agonies visited on them during their re-entry into civilian society by a government bureaucracy that too often couldn’t be bothered, in President Abraham Lincoln’s words, "to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan." During that era of upheaval, the treatment of America’s Vietnam veterans was beyond sad.
But that is the past. Kirt Schlichter, a veteran of Desert Storm and Operation Enduring Freedom, marvels at how different things are today: "All of us privileged to wear the uniform have felt it. You get hugs from grandmotherly types," he said. "You walk into stores and people shake your hand, saying ‘Thank you for your service.’ Little kids salute. You go to a restaurant and the waiter tells you someone has already taken care of the check. I recently stopped at a Starbucks and an older lady tried to buy my Frappuccino."
It’s not just the horrors of 9/11 and its slaughter of 3,000 innocent Americans that account for this sea change in how we have responded to our veterans in recent years. It began with the sight of rescued medical students from the island of Grenada kissing the ground when they returned to the States, gathered immense momentum from the quiet majesty of President Ronald Reagan’s "Boys of Pointe du Hoc" D-Day tribute, and continued when jubilant crowds assembled along Pennsylvania Avenue to welcome the troops home from Desert Storm.
Something Reagan said in his 1984 address in Normandy points to the heart of why it is so very right and proper that Americans celebrate Veterans Day, that we laud those who come home from places such as Anzio and Fallujah, and that we give our deepest thanks to those who did not. Speaking of the men who carried out the D-Day invasion, Reagan said: "They were what Gen. Marshall called our secret weapon, the best damn kids in the world. Where do we find them, where do we find such men? The answer came almost as quickly as I’d asked the question. Where we’ve always found them in this country. On the farms, in the shops, the stores and the offices. They just are the products of the freest society the world has ever known."
And so they were. They still are. Nobody prays more earnestly for peace than the soldier who goes to war, because nobody knows better the sacrifices that may be required. Yet knowing that, they willingly put on the uniform of the United States military and go forth to defend and protect the rest of us and our freedom here at home. That is what the soldiers, sailors and airmen of the Greatest Generation did, just as it is with our defenders today. There simply is no greater sacrifice, and every American is forever in their debt.