When the 1960s came around, the “Greatest Generation” – those men and women who served during World War II were still largely and stoically silent about their wartime experiences – but the television networks began television shows about the war. Series such as “Combat,” “12 O’Clock High,” and “Men at War” became staples of primetime viewing. Knowing things about WWII became part and parcel of determining one’s status within the pack (and here I am referring to Cub Scouts). Sure, you might be able to identify the German Messerschmitt 109 fighter aircraft from a flash card, but the real test was could you identify the difference between 109-C and the 109-G series (except the 109-G6 which was soooo… obvious). Clearly such things were critical to national defense among the Cub Scouts. Or so it seemed at the time.
WWII seemed like recent history. I mean, our fathers fought in the war! And we had grandfathers (and uncles) who fought in WWI, the “war to end all wars.” The world wars were history, but still kinda’ recent in the 1960s. This year, 2018, marks the 100th anniversary of the end of WWI. I have to admit that took me by surprise. A lot of water under the bridge since then. That made me consider how many years since the end of WWII? That war ended 73 years ago!
Frank Buckles was the last of the WWI vets to pass away. He died in February 2011 at the age of 110 years. It is estimated there are approximately 500,000 WWII veterans still with us, the youngest of whom are in their mid-to-late 80s. About 400 of these men and women pass away each day. Since then women and men have served their country in Korea, Vietnam, regional conflicts, the Gulf Wars, Afghanistan, and Iraq. The Pew Research Institute estimates there are 20 million American, still living, who have served and are rightly called veterans. That represents about 7-8% of all adult Americans. And there is a wide variance by age cohort.
Approximately 47% of American men over the age of 75 are veterans. Of the male adults aged 18-34, only 3.5% are veterans. In my age bracket (64-74), 33% are veterans. My intent was not to exclude women, it was just that the age-bracket data is harder to find and only “recently” has a broader range of opportunities within the military become available to women.
What is the profile of our veterans? And how will it change? Within 30 years all the veterans of WWII and Korea will have passed away as the Gulf Wars veterans become the majority. An increasing percentage of our service men and women will be people of color and women will play a larger role in the armed services.
And what about the people who will make decisions to send our men and women into harm’s way? How many of our Senators and Representatives have served? When was the last time we had a combat veteran in the Oval Office? George H.W. Bush was the last serving combat veteran president. He served in WWII as a Naval Aviator receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross. President Bush left office in early 1993. That was 25 years ago.
I spent a morning this week reading essays from veterans about their reasons for serving, their experiences, and their coming home. Every story is different, but there were common threads: all were proud to serve, mourned their loss, and were grateful to come home. And all were silently worried about us, as a people, where fewer families and political leaders have a direct familial connection to service in the armed forces. One writer said that he gratefully accepted “Thank you for your service,” but wondered what the answers would be if he asked in reply, “what are you grateful for?”
Perhaps that is how all veterans are best honored – by a people who are reflective and concretely appreciative of the sacrifice others have made on our behalf.