By Jonathon Van Maren
I remember when video montages of soldiers returning home began circulating shortly after the second Iraq War began. I discovered, to my surprise, that they reliably reduced me to tears. There is something about the videos of returning vets that perfectly encapsulates the strength and depth of human love. Children bursting into tears as their uniformed fathers unexpectedly fill classroom doors. Wives flinging their arms around their husbands, too overcome to even kiss them. Mothers sobbing, hugging, and sobbing some more. The sheer power of family is there for all to see.
So, too, are the sacrifices these families make while their loved ones are overseas. Fathers and mothers miss birthdays. Recitals. Graduations. Anniversaries. Even births. They do these things to serve on the front lines so that everyone else can enjoy these things. They endure the pain of separation while, at home, things proceed as normal. In fact, they endure these things for this very reason. Rarely do those of us without family members in the military stop and consider this.
Veteran’s Day is one opportunity to do so.
Listening to Witnesses
Over the past year, I have been working on an essay series about eyewitnesses to the 20th century. As we enter the third decade of the 21st century, many of those who lived through the great events of the last century are departing, one by one. I wanted to hear their stories firsthand, before they are gone. I spoke with many combat veterans of America’s wars. Like the only surviving Medal of Honor recipient from World War II, or the triple war ace who flew combat missions in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Their stories were an incredible glimpse into what veterans endure on our behalf.
Bud Anderson is 98 years old and the highest scoring American fighter ace alive. A World War II triple war ace, he flew combat missions over Europe, Korea and Vietnam. He was a California boy working as a junior aircraft mechanic when the Japanese attacked. “That’s when I knew we were off to war,” he told me. “I didn’t even know where Pearl Harbor was.”
Anderson ended up based in RAF Leiston, in England, flying combat tours against the Luftwaffe with the 363rd Fighter Squadron of the 357th Fighter Group. “We had good pilots in our group,” he told me proudly. “All we had to do was be turned loose and we were going to chew somebody up. I was quite proud of our unit. That was one of the greatest times of my life, working with these guys.”
“Those Farmers Are Going to Pitchfork Me”
When I asked him what it was like to fight the German pilots over Europe, his response was to the point: “It was very rewarding. It was scary when you first got over there, before you got any kind of experience. You looked down, and that’s enemy territory. If I go down, all these farmers are going to pitchfork me. They’re just waitin’.”