[November 10, 2023] I didn’t know it then, but I grew up privileged. Not with money, or status, or owning a big house or car or lots of clothes, but by being in the company of ordinary men, combat veterans from World War II and the Korean War, as well as those who served to protect us at home right here in America. They were everywhere: salesmen, gas station attendants, growing crops, coaching baseball teams, raising dairy cows, bringing up families, being members of the volunteer fire department, all holding ordinary jobs you could find in Anytown, USA. I saw their photographs of their battle buddies, and some of these ordinary men occasionally told me hair-raising stories about what they saw and did. Looking back, I guess there should be no surprise that these veterans wanted to talk to someone about their experiences, someone who wouldn’t judge them harshly. They talked about how a soldier could never predict when fear would sneak up on you, like a lion in the dark, and suddenly have you in its grasp. That scared me; it scared me a lot. How could I ever forget?
As little boys, we listened intently to these veterans, some recently returning from foreign battlefields, as they related their experiences. It was our way of figuring out what it was like. We boys were attracted to these men, although we didn’t know why. They were exciting and mysterious as we listened to what they were saying and learned about their battle buddies, courage, duty, honor, and selfless service. Like the little boys we were, we asked them stupid questions. Did you kill anybody? Were you a hero? Did you have a real gun? We were transfixed when they told stories of battles about the enemy and heroism. There was something about these veterans that drove us to try to understand what it took to be a hero. We knew nothing about a hero, only that adults in town looked up to them as special, admiring them, shaking their hands, smiling at them, and patting those veterans on the back. Being a hero must have surely been cool.
Their stories were repeated often where veterans hung out, but we boys never tired of listening. We were drawn to those stories that told of the best human traits. Their battles were in the forests of Western Europe, the jungles of islands in the western Pacific, the hills and vast valleys just north of the 38th Parallel in North Korea, and also on the Homefront. For example, we heard of the soldier who fought until all his ammunition ran out, then used up his hand grenades, then his bayonet and entrenching tool, and then his bare hands to fight off the “Communist hordes.” We were also told the story about the Marine machine-gunner who kept fighting in his position until overrun. Or, about the tale of an Infantry squad hiding in a shell hole, short of ammunition, and how they drew straws to see who got the dangerous job of going to the rear for more ammo and upon returning, he finds all his squad mates dead. And what it was like guarding German POWs from the German U-Boat 505, only a few miles from our home. Yes, we were in awe.
It is true that they taught me that war is not glamorous, fun, or something you would want to do. I learned about the human element in war, which affects each person differently and unpredictably. If you were ever in the military, you know that being brave was the most honorable thing a man could do for his men, military unit, and country. It brings out the best and worst in humans. And they taught us that war is unimaginably horrific. This is how I learned that real heroes don’t wear capes or wear their underwear on the outside of their spandex blue tights, or have X-ray vision. These men were the real heroes I could see, hear, and touch. They were right in front of me. These ordinary men did extraordinary things. They are now very old, and most are now gone. I hope I was not the only one listening to them speak of their military exploits. Otherwise, their stories will be lost forever. They are still my heroes. I was privileged.
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