Veterans Day: Honoring Those Who Have Answered the Call

Veterans Day is for celebrating those Americans – across all time and all wars – who have answered the call to protect liberty, defend freedom, and crush tyranny.  

By Col. Randal Scott Carter

We celebrate Veterans Day on the anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I, the armistice that began on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918.  The timing of this holiday is deliberate relative to history, but it also seems fitting that this day comes deep in the autumn season – when the colors around us are muted and the days seem to invite contemplation.

What are we contemplating, exactly?

Well, as the holiday’s title suggests, we’re reflecting on the service and sacrifice of our Veterans.  But the group of people we honor on this day each year – our veterans – represent a community of service members who are as varied and distinct as the conflicts in which they served.

The vets of Iraq and Afghanistan have had a very different experience from those who fought in Vietnam, Korea, Germany or Japan.  Indeed, as Secretary Gates recently noted, “No major war in our history has been fought with a smaller percentage of this country’s citizens in uniform full-time – roughly 2.4 million active and reserve service members out of a country of over 300 million, less than 1 percent.”  For the other 99 percent of Americans, the imagination plays a trick.  Most folks think of veterans as old and wise, something like the Founding Fathers, sagely and gray-haired.  When thinking of veterans, I imagine many still envision a Soldier from World War II, from an era often referred to as the “greatest generation.”

But the sad reality of our time is that the Greatest Generation is leaving us.

As one local reporter put it, “The sturdy backbones and strong handshakes have been bent and softened by the march of time. Veterans struggle to reach across the years and make those war stories still come alive with sea legs and trigger fingers. Oh, they still fly the American flag in front of their homes. They still salute Old Glory and hold their hands over their hearts. But, one by one, they are saying goodbye.”

We are losing our World War II veterans at a rate of 798 per day, an average of 16 every day in Georgia alone.

I personally take this issue to heart as my father is a World War II veteran and he is now 88 years old. I am truly blessed that he is still alive and living independently along with my mother in their family home in Savannah, Georgia.

So, though our hearts ache to say it, the torch of what it means to be a veteran has passed to a new generation.

Certainly, our great nation has seen many conflicts since the Second World War. But with most of our Korean or Vietnam War veterans in either senior or retired positions, the American people are now looking ahead to today’s generation of Soldiers to see what tomorrow will bring.

And now, as was the case throughout the history of this nation, service members across the nation are stepping forward to lead and protect our liberties and freedoms.  In Georgia alone, there are 770,000 veterans. And, unlike the generation which preceded it, many of today’s Soldiers have seen combat.  In fact, more than half of those currently serving in the National Guard today are combat veterans. That’s a fundamentally different force than that of the 80’s or 90’s and, as a result, we have a technically – if not fundamentally – different batch of veterans amongst us.

Certainly, our efforts to combat terrorism have come at a high price.  Since 9/11, there have been nearly 4,500 troops killed in Iraq and over 2,150 killed in Afghanistan.  Over 36,000 troops have been wounded in action in both theaters.

These sacrifices raise an important question – are today’s Soldiers really so very different from the warriors of Vietnam, Korea, either of the World Wars or even the Revolutionary War?

Not where it matters. Being a Veteran is still about selfless service and sacrifice.

While the technology of warfare has become far more complex and sophisticated since even the Persian Gulf War, our most basic military asset has remained rock steady throughout our nation’s existence… That is the character, daring, and resourcefulness of those who do the fighting for the freedoms all Americans enjoy.

The tactics and weapons have adjusted over time, and we’ve certainly adapted to the lessons of history – but the call to serve has a universal ring that has always resonated with men and women of a certain ilk in this country.  The call to protect liberty, defend freedom, and crush tyranny sounded the same to me, as it did to my father in World War II, as it does to any Soldier serving in Afghanistan today.

So, this day, Veterans Day, is for celebrating those Americans – across all time and all wars – who have answered that call. The call to serve transcends all man-made boundaries and, it would seem, time and space as well.

And for their service, those American Soldiers who have been fortunate enough to avoid the snares of war come home with a level of experience and training that distinguishes them from their civilian peers.  Worth noting, I think, is that this experience and training is appreciated by the general population in this country and, in particular, in the civilian work force.  And rightfully so.

One of our senior Generals once said of our young veterans, “Tell me anywhere in the business world where a 22- or 23-year-old is responsible for 35 or 40 other individuals on missions that involve life and death. Their tactical actions can have strategic implications for the overall mission. And they’re under enormous scrutiny, on top of everything else. These are pretty formative experiences. It’s a bit of a crucible-like experience that they go through.”

My own experiences in Iraq can be described that way. I served in Iraq from June 2005 through June 2006 with Georgia’s own 48th Infantry Brigade Combat Team. As an experienced Infantry officer and a seasoned civilian engineer in the Pulp and Paper industry, I had a unique and rewarding opportunity to serve our nation, our state, and the people of Iraq. The 48th Brigade controlled the area south of Baghdad nicknamed the “fias” – Mahmudia, Yousafia, Latifiyah, and Lutifyia. It was also called the Triangle of Death – and it earned that foreboding name. This conflict was marked with the dual mission of lethal and non-lethal operations – that in itself marks the difference for today’s veterans. I was responsible for all the “non-lethal” operations in the 48th Brigade area – and I recognize the irony of referring to an Infantry team executing non-lethal operations in a war zone. But we had the satisfaction of truly helping the Iraqi people – during our time in theater, we insured that the success of the Iraq Constitutional Referendum. I personally insured that the people of south Baghdad could have a voice in developing their new government that replaced a dictator. We also were able to facilitate the building of schools and to bring clean water to villages that dated back to the time of Abraham. We went into the local communities and conducted medical outreach programs and even used vets to improve the health of the of the farm animals critical to the survival of these villages.

You can never truly appreciate being American until you see people who have not been blessed with our freedom and with the rule of law. I experienced events that I know will affect me for the rest of my life. We were proud to serve and proud to do what we could do to help.

The weapons, tactics and even enemies may look different – but the call to serve and protect still rings proud and true.  On this holiday, we honor those – past and present – who’ve answered that call, without whom America would not have defeated the Nazis, Imperial Japan, fascism, totalitarianism, or communism.  We honor those, therefore, who have helped to ensure peace and freedom in our time.

And as we recognize veterans, let us also remember those who gave their lives in service to this country: our prisoners of war, those who have gone missing in action, and those who have been killed in action.  So, on this day – a day for celebrating and honoring our veterans, especially those who gave the last full measure of devotion – let us pray that our efforts to achieve lasting peace gain strength. And let each of us keep the memory and importance of this day in the forefront of our minds and our hearts.

Col. Randal Scott Carter is a Construction and Facilities Management Officer in the Georgia Army National Guard, a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and a proud Georgia Tech engineer.