As the years go by, Veteran’s Day has come to mean more to me. I always knew what Veteran’s Day was about. My dad is a veteran, career Air Force. I grew up on military bases and moved from base to base throughout my childhood. Nearly all the adult males I met would be vets someday—some women, too.
Being surrounded by them all the time was just so natural that they were invisible to me back then.
It wasn’t until Jerry and I had made a trip in the mid-90s out to the USS Kitty Hawk—an aircraft carrier that has since been decommissioned—that gave me my first view of the military through an adult’s eyes. And, man, were my eyes opened. The sailors were so young, and managed such responsibility! Tons of multi-million dollar aircraft under the deft control of flight deck crews, many of whom had only graduated high school a couple years before.
Years later, under much different circumstances, at the urging of Jeff Bacon, a cartoonist and blogger for the Navy Times and Military Times, I got another taste. This time it came in a visit to the Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego. Jeff is also a former Navy captain, he and wanted the National Cartoonists Society to get back to its roots and begin visiting troops again. The NCS had been born out of those kinds of visits back in World War II.
Jeff organized a group of cartoonists to visit the hospital and draw for the patients and staff. I was lucky enough to go. Many wounded soldiers, Marines, sailors and Air Force personnel from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan came there for treatment and rehabilitation. That trip was the start of a series of trips—mostly sponsored by the USO—to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, to Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf.
Everywhere we went, the story was the same: Military men and women performed their duties professionally, with humility and humor and purpose, and eschewed the term “hero.”
Even those who would no longer be able to perform those duties, and in some cases any duties, due to severe injuries spoke of the desire to get back and help their buddies, to be there for their comrades.
We met a Marine, not much over twenty, who had already served multiple tours in the war. He showed off his new state-of-the-art leg and described the hole in his shoulder and the abdominal muscles replaced with those of a cadaver. He spoke of reenlisting if the Marines would have him.
Look up Josh Wege on the Internet, a Marine we saw right out of surgery, a bilateral amputee below the knee. I was shocked to see him on Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, being highlighted along with his team members of the Wounded Warriors Amputee Softball Team.
I cried when I realized who he was.
And the soldier I met with both legs amputated at the hip and left with only one arm, plus traumatic brain injury—I can’t even think about him without starting to cry.
There are thousands of men and women just like them. Some with very visible injuries, some not. This doesn’t even count the numerous medical personnel who, day in and day out, try to put these broken lives back together.
Of course, not all veterans have been wounded. Most made it through their military service unscathed. But every one of them who has put on a uniform could have been, and they knew it. That’s why we honor them.
And that’s why they are no longer invisible to me.