“War makes strange giant creatures out of us little routine men who inhabit the earth.”
– Ernie Pyle
Ernie Pyle, the famed war correspondent killed by a Japanese sniper late in World War II, may have been onto something.
“Strange, giant creatures?” Yes, indeed. Veterans are sometimes a bit surprised, and yet very proud, of what they did in wartime. They scoff at being labeled heroes.
“Little routine men?” That’s how they see themselves. It’s what makes them — for the most part — so humble. It’s why I enjoy being around them and why I enjoy telling their stories.
Ask about their experiences and you’ll likely hear, “Aw, I didn’t do anything special.”
But if you’re lucky, and if they’ve reached the point where talking about those days in uniform isn’t too painful, they just might open up to you.
Every military man or woman has a story. … The 18-year-old who traded a football helmet for a steel pot, the store clerk who commanded a destroyer, the WAC who lost her brother and gained a husband during the war, the cowboy who manned a waist gun on a B-17 and the farmer’s son who saw the ocean for the first time from the deck of an aircraft carrier.
Everyone who wore a uniform played an important role. Some try to downplay their contributions, but whether they fought hand-to-hand, ferried troops to shore, piloted bombers, repaired tanks, fueled planes, stoked boilers, loaded ammo belts, fed troops, drove a jeep or stacked truckloads of rations, all were important. And their stories are fascinating.
A few weeks ago, I was privileged to address the dozens of veterans living at the Watkins-Logan State Veterans Home, a 2-year-old state-of-the-art facility.
I was there to help throw a party that my friends at Brookshire Grocery Co. and I had cooked up. While volunteers dished out hamburgers, chips, ice cream and sweet tea as part of Brookshire’s Salute to Veterans, I took the microphone to make a presentation.
The framed photograph I gave them was one I call “I’ve Got Your Back.” It’s not the usual frontal view of Frederick Hart’s Three Soldiers monument, which sits on a rise above “The Wall,” the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C.
It’s a view you won’t see unless you circle around behind the statue. To me, it says a lot about brotherhood, friendship and the close ties formed in war. Every serviceman or woman who has been in harm’s way, no matter what war, no matter what service, knows the comfort that comes with knowing your buddies are watching out for you, that they “have your back.”
The photo, I told them, represents the spirit and sense of community we wanted to share with the Watkins-Logan Veterans Home. “We are glad you are here,” I told them. “We are proud of you and of your service. You are part of our community.”
In the heat of a late summer sun, the aging soldiers, sailors, leathernecks and airmen relaxed and nodded off in the shade. They finished their burgers and ice cream, listened to the twang of a country band and shared smiles with volunteers and visitors who catered to their every need.
Many decades earlier, when they were youths, they had left their homes, marched off to war and sacrificed much. When their country needed them most, they had served. They looked out for each other as best they could, won their war and came home.
That day, it was our turn to watch over them. That day, we had their backs.
Dave Berry is editor of the Tyler Morning Telegraph. His column will appear every Sunday on the East Texas section front. Next week, with “Saigon, Sweat and Spades,” Berry will share a night in Vietnam that forever tainted his feelings about card games.