One of the perks of working in journalism is all the people and characters you get to meet, from politicians and entertainers down to residents and people striving to make their communities better.
But of all the people I’ve gotten to interview and learn about, some of my favorites time and time again are veterans.
I still remember sitting at a home out in Santa Fe, listening to a World War II veteran describe their experience fighting in the Battle of Iwo Jima – a battle that raged for more than a month and ended with more than 7,000 dead U.S. servicemen.
Beyond their personal stories of valor and heroism, veterans are also a window into our nation’s history and character.
For instance, I’d never fully known the contributions Chinese-American service members made during World War II until former U.S. Rep. Pete Olson let me know about Fort Bend County resident Lewis Yee being honored with a Congressional Gold Medal.
Yee served in the First American Volunteer Group of the Republic of China’s air force –a group better known as the Flying Tigers. The Flying Tigers were a group of pilots, recruited under then-President Franklin Roosevelt’s authority, that were marked with Chinese colors, but flew under American control.
Despite all the perspective, wisdom and knowledge that veterans from all of our branches of service offer, I’m shocked how seldom they’re mentioned on a day-to-day basis. And it’s for that reason that I’m thankful we have a chance to recognize them and, perhaps more importantly, think about them and their contributions to our history with each Veterans Day we celebrate.
Veterans Day grew out of Armistice Day, which was initially meant to commemorate the end of World War I, but shifted into a celebration of all veterans of the armed forces.
As someone who never served in the military, I can only marvel at the perseverance and dedication of so many of the men and women who served in World War II, Vietnam, Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan and anywhere else across the globe through our country’s history.
But more than just remembering their idealized selves on this single day meant to honor them, it’s well worth taking time to consider them in fullness and context.
Just last week, for instance, a city council member in Fort Bend County posted on social media about a homeless veteran he’d befriended. No one should have to live in the streets in this country, where we should have enough abundance to provide for the least among us. But it’s especially true for those of us who served our country in peacetime and in war.
It’s not just homeless veterans on the street that deserve our attention and concern, either. Just last year at another newspaper, I had the honor of getting to know a veteran named John Casillo.
Just before I met him, Casillo had learned a battery of chemotherapy and other treatment for leukemia were no longer effective and he would need to find a clinical trial, but that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs no longer covered his preferred MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
Mobilizing all his efforts, Casillo eventually worked out a place in a clinical trial, but he sadly died just a month later.
The Galveston County resident’s story was, in many ways, indicative of the struggles veterans everywhere face while trying to gain access to services and healthcare.
I don’t think I quite realized it until I was reading about it ahead of a story I wrote a few years ago, but the knowledge that veterans have is critical, and passing. As of 2020, for instance, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimated there were about 300,000 U.S. World War II veterans still living. The VA’s projections, which came before the pandemic, were that about 245 veterans would die each day.
Think about everything that someone who served in World War II must have seen – from the horrible battles they fought, to knowing more vividly the horrors of the Nazis and fascism. Once they go, how long does that cultural memory remain as strong in our minds?
So, on this Veterans Day, I hope each of you takes some time to do one of my favorite parts of my job – just sit down and have a conversation with a veteran. No doubt many of you have a loved one who’s served. Or maybe it’s a neighbor, or a respected community member.
Sit with them and ask them about their memories serving in the military. And ask them what changes they’d like to see in the way we treat veterans in this country.
And to all the veterans reading this paper, I thank each and every one of you for your service.