From that spring morning in 1775 when the sounds of musket fire could be heard in the distance, and the first smoke of conflict could be seen rising above the ramparts of Breed’s Hill, Americans have stepped forward in service to their country. They have imparted substance to the pride we feel when we say that we are Americans.
For more than two centuries, our veterans have willingly and selflessly put themselves in harm’s way to protect this homeland and the enduring principles for which it stands. We honor them on Veterans Day.
As a veteran, I had the honor and pride of serving with a group of very special men who were Swift Boat officers in Vietnam. I call them special because of one sentinel fact: They were volunteers, every one of them.
As did the men from Lexington and Concord, they left behind comfort and safety and came forward in response to the call of country and the definition they earned as sons of this country. By volunteering to serve in the front line of an active battle zone, each man had effectively written a blank check made payable to this country for “any amount — up to and including my life.”
I am proud to be called a veteran, and my pride is embellished by ribbons and medals that hang on my wall. But there is a memory that calls me up short and commands that I step back, be humble, and pay quiet homage to our profoundly true heroes — America’s most treasured veterans.
Several years ago, I went to the American cemetery in Normandy. It is a beautiful, expansive, awe-inspiring landscape of seemingly endless rows of white crosses. It is a place where every American should go.
There, I found the grave of a young man whose name was the closest to mine that I could find in the directory of graves. I carried a red rose to his grave, and as I knelt next to his headstone, I paused, read his name and remembered his date of birth from the registry. Then, during that pause, a flood of realization overwhelmed me.
At that moment, I realized some measure of the deep and very human price he had paid in service to his country. The price was his life, his young life, the final and richest sum he could ever pay. The price he paid meant that he would never know the elation of getting behind the wheel of his first, shiny new car and sensing that indelible new car smell. He would never know the anxiety of waiting for an answer when he asked a pretty girl to marry him. He would never feel the euphoric pride of bouncing his baby upon his knee. He would never mow the grass on his lawn and cool his sweaty thirst with a cold beer. He would never carve the turkey on his family’s table at Thanksgiving. For him, there would never again be a Christmas morning.
I realized these things because I did the simple computation and realized that, when he was shot to pieces on the sands of Omaha Beach, he was a boy, a 17-year-old boy.
As a veteran who served my country, I am proud to have done so. However, I returned to enjoy, in full measure, the prosperity and comfort of what I fought for. This Veterans Day, I have to think of the thousands upon thousands of American flags that are gently waving in soft breezes above countless graves of young Americans at Arlington, the Ardennes, Normandy, Flanders and distant, scattered islands across the South Pacific, the eternal resting places of those who laid their last full measure of loyalty upon the altar of American freedom. It is to them I must humbly bow my head on this day.
All of America can all sleep well tonight, because we will be covered by a secure blanket woven out of honor, duty and service that they made for us. Let us salute those who established that the enduring strength and beauty of America has been defined by commitment, loyalty and, most importantly, sacrifice.
Those who died for America are a vast sea of young faces from every corner of our land, faces that never came home, faces that will never grow old. It is my fervent hope that we pause and understand the sacrifice that defined what it means to be an American hero, and may we reflect upon what we owe each one of them on their day: Veterans Day.
Don Tortorice is a former attorney and professor at the Law School of the College of William and Mary. He is also a retired U.S. Navy lieutenant who served in Vietnam from 1966-67.