05.31.10

A Memorial Day Message from Senator Richard Burr

I recently spent a morning with a group of World War Two veterans from North Carolina on an once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage organized by the Honor Flight Network to the national war memorial built in their honor in Washington, DC. These men were from my father's generation, and while most walk with a cane or need a wheelchair, they still possess the quiet confidence and wry humor that helped them through the dark days of their youth in Europe and the Pacific.

Ask any one of them if they consider themselves a hero and you're likely to get a thoughtful look or just a humble shrug of the shoulder. Most, especially the ones who saw and experienced the indiscriminate brutality of combat, will tell you the only true heroes are the guys who didn't make it home. For these veterans there are no degrees of sacrifice or service; you survived the war or you did not, it's that simple.

On a curved wall at the center of the World War Two Memorial's pavilion are the symbols of the humbling cost of their generation's fight against fascism, over 400,000 American dead memorialized in anonymity by a field of one thousand gold stars. The wall of stars and the reflecting pool of shallow water below tend to draw veterans, usually in ones and twos, to pose there for pictures. Some choose to linger a bit, quiet and alone with their thoughts, gazing at the wall or the water. Sometimes, they will tell a brief personal story, perhaps for the very first time, about someone they served with, one of the 400,000.

Like most veterans of their generation, accounts of combat or individual actions are rare, and always obscured by the better times they would rather tell you about:their fruitful lives since the war ended, going back to college, building a career, and raising a family. These are the true sum of their success they will tell you, not the exploits of twenty-somethings with rifles laboring up a jungle trail or toiling into the night at a remote airfield halfway around the world.

Joining them during these visits to the memorial are veterans of other wars, Vietnam, Persian Gulf, and Iraq and Afghanistan. They remain quietly in the background, respectful of the brief time their guests have to take in the scenery, almost reverential as they walk among living history, but always ready, at a moment's notice, to lend a helping hand off a bus, push a wheelchair, or snap a photo.

Much has been written about the rapid passing of the World War Two generation and the memories that will perish with them. They fought a sort of war far removed from what today's men and women in uniform must contend with, merging the humanitarian and political with old fashioned soldiering. So something more than memories will be lost when they are gone from this earth. In some measure, they are a collective, human link to a time when this nation could mobilize all its resources, grit its collective teeth, and see total victory as the best and surest path to defeating our enemies.

The world has indeed changed in many ways since 1945 and in many respects we live in a more complex and interconnected environment today, an environment due in large measure to their wartime sacrifices and the discipline and leadership they brought home with them. Once the ticker tape parades had ended, they quietly went on to steer America through a period of unprecedented prosperity and social and political change that became the envy of the world, while Germany and Japan embraced forms of democracy and became vibrant economic powers.

The "can do" spirit and self sacrifice of the first Greatest Generation is now embodied in their grandchildren, veterans of Fallujah, Kandahar and other lesser known fights too numerous to mention. While the political and economic outcomes of the current wars in Southwest Asia won't be known for many years, many of those who have contributed to the ongoing efforts overseas are coming home to a very different moment in the nation's history. It is a moment when confidence in our institutions of government and society has been shaken, the vitality of our economy is being questioned, and employment opportunities are fleeting and hard to come by. But like their fathers who served in Vietnam and their grandfathers in World War Two and Korea, they have been severely tested and understand there are no guarantees in life. Over time, the way these newest veterans assimilate into their communities and the way we treat them will tell us if we have truly learned from the aftermath of Vietnam and recognized the role of the soldier, the value of their service, and the significance of their sacrifices.

On this Memorial Day, let us honor and remember the true heroes of all of our nation's wars - those who did not make it home to lead full lives, and let us also renew our commitment to cherish and empower those who were fortunate enough to come home, after decades or mere weeks in the past, and who face their own challenges and obstacles as they strive to make a worthy contribution to the success of this great nation.

SenatorBurr is theRanking Member on the Senate Vetarans Affairs Committee.