The last few generations of military veterans have been fortunate to live in an America that, by and large, respects, appreciates, and admires the service and sacrifice of the United States military in wartime. While the wars have been far from popular in terms of public-opinion polls, the American citizenry remains quite respectful of service in wartime, defense of the country, and the institution of the U.S. military.
Many veterans who fought in the wars in Korea and Vietnam, for example, were not received home with the same admiration and respect of their fellow Americans that returning service personnel today largely enjoy. For veterans of the Korean war, much of that failure can be attributed to the politicization of the conflict in the presidential race of 1952. Republican Presidential nominee and former U.S. Army General Dwight Eisenhower campaigned on bold action to end the war in Korea. In the decades that followed the armistice signed in 1953, the conflict was largely shaded by the war in Vietnam.
For Vietnam veterans, the unpopular nature of the conflict and conscription led the public away from public displays of appreciation for returning veterans. Further, the public’s opposition to compulsory military service and conscription during the war in Vietnam conflated with the public’s angst and opposition to the policies of the Johnson and Nixon administrations.
To our collective shame, this angst over government policy was unfairly and embarrassingly thrust instead upon the heroic fighting men of the uniformed services as they returned home from duty. Instead of being recognized by their country for proudly and bravely charging into battle against an enemy that did not lend itself to easy defeat, veterans of the Vietnam war were too often marginalized from American society and left to bury their military service beneath the shame heaped upon the men who fought the war instead of the men who crafted the policies that drove the war.
Only recently has the American public begun to recognize the heroes of the Korean and Vietnam wars in ways that they richly deserve.
For Korean and Vietnam veterans especially, their country unfortunately went the long way around in properly recognizing their service, sacrifice, and heroism. In stark contradiction, the country has seemingly had nothing but the utmost admiration for veterans of the Second World War. The men who fought abroad and the women who worked the factories at home quite literally saved the world. However, even veterans of that great conflict were forced to wait for a national memorial dedicated to their service and sacrifice. It wasn’t until 2004 that the National World War Two Memorial in Washington, D.C. was inaugurated—the heroism of its warfighters and veterans cast into stone. Now, many more generations of Americans visit and render proper respect and appreciation.
Veterans Day is a very personal day for many of us. I recall the faces and personalities of men and women I was blessed to serve with in Afghanistan through two year-long tours. For me, they represent this generation’s finest Americans. That is often a phrase defined as cliche, but for many of us, it most closely describes how we feel about the people who stood next to us during the most difficult times in the conflicts since September 11, 2001. Undeniable courage, commitment to duty, loyalty, and valor are among the words that most often echo through my mind on Veterans Day.
To say that I am proud to have had the honor of serving next to these finest of human beings is to understate my feelings for the soldiers, Marines, sailors, and airmen I was privileged to serve alongside. To my dying day, these will be men and women who I identify as the finest America had to offer during one of its darkest hours. To paraphrase and steal a phrase, these men and women responded to a call to arms that no one sounded. They were compelled to serve not by conscription or policy of government, but by love of country and a motivation to defend their nation in its time of peril. When attacked, the country did indeed respond with its best and brightest.
When each of us considers Veterans Day, we all have a distinct understanding of what the day means to us personally. This is especially true for those that wore the uniform of the U.S. military during war time, and even more so for those who served abroad in defense of their country and its way of life. For many Americans raised on Hollywood depictions of Americans at war, they often default to World War Two as the conflict which most completely encompasses the American willingness to fight: an undeniably evil enemy, a truly pure cause, and an existential threat to the United States and the American way of life. Among the veterans of that great war against tyranny, fascism, imperialism, and dictatorship was a man who represents everything I know about being a man.
On Veterans Day, the man who most often occupies my thoughts is my grandfather.
Aldo Beata, a man his grandchildren called ‘Papa’, was the son of Italian immigrants. In the ninth grade, he dropped out to join the United States Navy after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. He served more than three years in the Pacific Theater of Operations as a sailor in the U.S. Navy, fighting imperial Japanese military forces through a slew of battles that helped turn the tide of World War Two for the Allies.
His actions and his service in World War Two define him as a hero in my eyes. But there was more to the man following his military service. He lived the values of the U.S. Navy as a civilian as well as he did while serving as a sailor. In so many words, he defined the term veteran for me: He spoke little and worked more.
Following his service, my grandfather came home and became a firefighter in Chicago. For the next few decades, he fought fires. He retired from the fire department but could not sit still. Instead, he went to work for the Chicago Tribune as a truck driver, delivering newspapers. Following his retirement from that job, he remained incapable of sitting still.
He began taking his grandchildren to work at a young age. He would spend his days toiling and collecting newspapers left for him at the ends of driveways throughout his subdivision to recycle at an industrial plant. Along with my siblings and my cousin, we would accompany this war hero each day, learning the value of hard work and humility. Throughout the years we worked with him, what we did not know was that the few dollars (usually about $10) he earned from each load were being split for his four grandchildren and placed into a bank account for their future college tuitions. Humility, sacrifice, loyalty, and dedication to family and country.
In all my years of knowing him, I never once heard the man complain, boast, or brag. Not one single incident of weakness. To say that my grandfather was ‘stoic’ is an understatement. He simply fought through everything that was placed in his way in an understated, humble, and dedicated manner. He worked, quite literally, until his body refused to work any longer. In his actions, he reflected the meaning of service, sacrifice, and what it meant to be a veteran of the United States military.
The attitude of selflessness is not the exclusive purview of the so-called ‘Greatest Generation’ but for many Americans that generation now seems to represent the ideal more so than any other. However, subsequent generations of veterans reflected the same commitments through their service in other conflicts. But for me as a young child and teenager, my idol and the person who demonstrated the value of those ideals was my grandfather, a veteran of the Second World War and truly a member of the Greatest Generation.
On October 31, 1994, I lost the model for everything I know about what a man is supposed to be. For his grandchildren, he defined the term ‘manhood’. But to this day, he remains the ideal for what Veterans Day means to me. Though he never stated as such, I am sure that he expects me to live according to his understanding of manhood:
Loyalty, sacrifice, courage, hard work, determination, devotion to defending what is right, and dedication to family.
My grandfather remains one of this country’s unsung heroes, and I’m proud to say that I miss him as a son would miss his own father. But I take pride in knowing that the way in which he lived his life, the way in which he carried himself, and the dedication he displayed to his family and his country, lives on. His service was the primary motivating factor in my decision to enlist to serve as a member of the United States Army. It lives on in the valor displayed by those fighting America’s battles in uniform against the world’s latest form of tyranny. I saw his way of life reflected in the men and women in uniform who served selflessly in Afghanistan. In knowing that he would be proud of today’s military veterans, I understand what Veterans Day should mean.
When a political pundit, a blogger, or an opinionated passerby bemoans the country’s state of affairs and attributes the ills of society to a general decline of the American way of life or an eroded sense of decency in politics, I immediately reflect upon the life of my grandfather and how I witnessed such valor among the men of 1-32 Infantry Battalion, 10th Mountain Division, and 2-35 Infantry Battalion, 25th Infantry Division in Eastern Afghanistan. No country in decline would find such dedicated service personnel. Our country remains in the hands of the best and brightest.
The acts of valor I witnessed both humbled me and restored my faith in my fellow man. I saw my fellow soldiers risk their own lives and wellbeing under fire in order to save wounded Americans and allies. More, I saw Americans and allies dive headlong into enemy fire to rescue Afghan civilians. I witnessed men selflessly disregard their own safety to evacuate wounded, and charge at an onrushing enemy to prevent further carnage to the men at their side.
America truly sent its best and brightest to Afghanistan. I personally bore witness to the truth of that statement. In doing so, those men and women strengthened the ideals that serve as the foundation of our country: commitment to liberty, freedom, and what is just.
My grandfather would be proud. That alone would be good enough for any man that knew him.