Veterans Day seems to be one of those “sort of” holidays. We know something’s different about Nov. 11 because the banks and post office are closed. But for most of us, it’s another day at work or school.
Compared to our other patriotic holidays—Memorial Day and Independence Day—Veterans Day seems relegated to second-tier status. Why? We owe as much gratitude to our living veterans as we do to those who have passed on.
Perhaps the problem is a matter of timing. Nov. 11 falls quite close to Thanksgiving, which in turn is closely followed by Christmas and New Year’s. Maybe it just isn’t logistically or economically feasible to have another national holiday in such close proximity to those others. It is what it is, and each of us determines what it means to us and how we observe it, just as we do for any holiday, religious or secular.
As a nonveteran from a family with multiple veterans, I’ve always had a deep regard for them. But on Nov. 11, 1987, I had a poignant encounter that enabled me to experience the full potential of Veterans Day. Here’s what happened:
After dinner, I drove 15 miles to see the Vietnam War movie “Hamburger Hill.” My wife has no stomach for war movies, so I went alone.
The first snow of the season was falling. Our winding, hilly country roads were quickly getting slick, causing most people to prudently stay at home, so I had the roads almost to myself. When I got to the cinema, there were only five of us—all men—scattered throughout the cavernous old theater.
“Hamburger Hill” was a slice-of-life Vietnam War movie. It alternated between harrowing and sometimes gory battle scenes, in which U.S. infantrymen fought against an almost invisible enemy in a steamy jungle, and vignettes of soldiers’ noncombat life, where the enemies were boredom, homesickness, and a nagging bewildering question: What are we doing here?
Unlike Vietnam War movies favored by critics, “Hamburger Hill” had no ideological ax to grind. It portrayed rather than preached. It showed the harsh, precarious existence of a platoon of young men shedding blood, sweat, and tears to take control of one particular hill for some unspecified military objective in a war with an unclear political objective.
At the end of this sober, unpretentious movie, I walked to the back of the theater and paused to read the credits. I wasn’t alone. Next to me was a man about my age, sitting in a wheelchair.
In the flickering light bouncing off the screen, I could see that he was bearded, stocky, and legless. It didn’t take a Sherlock Holmes to figure out where he had lost his legs.
“Was the movie’s portrayal accurate?” I ventured to ask.
“Yep, that’s exactly what it was like over there.”
I marveled at how courageous this man was to have sat through such a vivid portrayal of the horrors he had lived through.
After the credits ended, we headed out of the cinema together. We continued to chat as he wheeled himself down the sidewalk. I admired his lack of bitterness, his freedom from self-pity.
A flood of other thoughts churned inside me. I thought of my wife’s cousin, who had written home from ’Nam, saying that the war could be over in six months if only the politicians would remove the shackles from our military and let them win. That was Paul’s last letter before his remains were shipped home to a family whose grief was compounded by the sense that his passing had been for naught.
I remembered, with revulsion, how some of my contemporaries had become so consumed with anger and self-righteousness that they scorned and ostracized G.I.s returning from Vietnam rather than welcoming them home.
I felt pangs of guilt about how, through some inscrutable decree of fate, the man beside me had been plucked from his loved ones and dropped into a hell on earth, while I was able to go out on dates and watch the World Series amid the comforts of home.
As we came to his customized car with its “Disabled Veteran” license plate, I wanted so much to find a way to acknowledge the sacrifice he had made.
What could I possibly say to this man? Finally, with my heart pounding, worried that I might not say the right thing, I offered him my hand and said simply, “Thank you for your service to our country.”
His face lit up.
He was positively beaming as he gripped my hand firmly, looked up at me, and spoke words that I’ll never forget.
“You know,” he said with genuine gratitude, “that’s only the third time that somebody has ever said anything like that to me.” (Only the third time? Surely we can do better than that.)
We parted then. I haven’t seen him since. But I carry the memory of his smile with me. This man touched my heart. He transformed Veterans Day from just another routine federal holiday to an annual heartfelt remembrance of how blessed we Americans are to have such great countrymen.
Wherever you are, my friend, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. And to all the rest of you veterans, and those of you on active duty today, thank you, too. We are forever in your debt.
Mark Hendrickson, an economist, recently retired from the faculty of Grove City College, where he remains a fellow for economic and social policy at the Institute for Faith and Freedom.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.