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Veterans Day: The debt we still owe

Veterans Day
Members of the U.S. Air Force Honor Guard stand at attention at the 9/11 Memorial in New York, November 10, 2014. The 9/11 Memorial is holding a Salute to Service, a five day tribute to veterans for Veterans Day. |

Yesterday was Veterans Day, the day we as a nation set aside to honor all our veterans, living and dead. Every one of us owes a tremendous debt of gratitude to all our veterans for the sacrifices they have made to protect our safety and preserve our wonderful and cherished freedoms as Americans.

As the poet Charles M. Province has pointed out, without the soldiers’ willingness to take up arms and defend our rights, they would be great, noble, but unrealized ideals:

It is the soldier, not the reporter, who has given us the freedom of the press.
It is the soldier, not the poet, who has given us the freedom of speech.
It is the soldier, not the campus organizer, who gives us the freedom to demonstrate.
It is the soldier who salutes the flag, who serves beneath the flag, and whose coffin is draped by the flag, who allows the protester to burn the flag.

(Charles M. Province, The Soldier)

I hope you will take the opportunity of Veterans Day weekend to thank all the veterans you know, and their families, for their service and sacrifices. Let them know how much you appreciate their service.

I am personally extremely grateful that in times of grave crisis we have always had men and women who were willing to answer the call to duty and don the uniforms of our military branches and put themselves in harm’s way and risk their lives for us and for our freedoms.

When I was living in England in the early 1970s, I was visiting a beautiful Anglican church in a picturesque English village, and, as was usually the case, there was a memorial to those horrifyingly large numbers of men who died in the terrible carnage of World Wars I and II. In this little village church, the memorial, which contained a disturbingly high number of names, contained an inscription that so touched me that I wrote it down. It said, “In England’s hour of greatest need, they sacrificed all their tomorrows that England might remain free.” How touching — and how true.

All the men and women who were killed in defending America died before their natural time. Most of them were in their teens and 20s. My father, a World War II Navy veteran with 13 battle stars in the Pacific, to the day he died at 92, fondly remembered the men he served with, the men who died in their early 20s like he was, far from home. They did indeed sacrifice all their tomorrows, never having the joy of becoming fathers or grandfathers because their lives were tragically and violently cut short defending our freedoms.

Being of a certain age, I am acutely aware of one generation of Americans whose sacrifice is particularly poignant. As I graduated from high school in 1965 the U.S. was in the midst of sending approximately 500,000 American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines to Vietnam. (The joke going around at the time was, “They warned me if I voted for Goldwater in the ’64 election, we would have half a million troops in Vietnam, and you know what? I did, and they were right!”)

In many very important ways, the Vietnam War became the defining event for at least the first half of the Baby Boom Generation (1946-1957). Ken Burns and Lynn Novak, in their excellent documentary on the Vietnam War, pointed out that that war drove a stake right into the heart of America and that it has not completely healed yet.

Whatever your views about the war were, and are, the soldiers who were called to serve did their duty and served bravely and with honor, and we shouldn’t have taken our frustrations and animosities out on them.

They did not start the war, they did not mismanage it, and they did not mislead the American people. And make no mistake about it, we now know that all of us were lied to by our government, conservative and liberal alike.

We should be grateful for our fellow countrymen and their sacrifices. As one platoon commander in Vietnam said as he was being interviewed for Ken Burns’ documentary: “Nineteen-year-old high school dropouts from the lowest socioeconomic rung of American society, they weren’t going to be awarded for service in Vietnam, and yet their infinite patience, their loyalty to each other, their courage under fire, was phenomenal. And you ask yourself,’ he said, ‘how does America produce young men like this?’”

These men deserved better when they came home than the opprobrium, disdain, and hostility they far too often encountered. This truth was brought home to me in a personal way several years ago. I was between flights in an airport, and I observed several passengers thanking uniformed servicemen for their service.

I noticed an older gentleman wearing a Vietnam Veterans cap observing the scene rather wistfully. I went over and thanked him for his service. He teared up and in a breaking voice said, “I just wish someone had thanked us when we came home.”

Ever since then, when I encounter Vietnam Veterans, I thank them for their service and tell them I hope they know they have the gratitude of a grateful nation. I have yet to have one vet who has not been visibly moved by my gesture.

The most recent episode was the day before yesterday in the waiting room of my surgeon’s office, as I awaited encouraging news concerning my very successful back surgery. I approached a man in his early 70s wearing a Vietnam Veterans cap, and I thanked him for his service. Both he and his wife teared up and thanked me for my expression of gratitude and respect.

This has happened before, with wives expressing to me how grateful they are for my comments because when their husbands came home they were called a “baby killer” and a “war criminal.” I had one wife tell me that her husband had encountered such hostility when he first arrived back in the U.S. that he went into the airport restroom and changed out of his uniform into civilian clothes before he went home.

He deserved better than that. They all did. It is obviously a very deep wound that may have scabbed over but has never healed.

As Sylvester Stallone’s Vietnam Era Green Beret character, John Rambo, put it succinctly, “We want our country to love us as much as we love it.”

Time is running out on the opportunity to rectify this injustice. The vast majority of these Vietnam Vets are between 65 and 75. We have a limited window left to heal this great wound and do the right thing by these fellow Americans and say, “thank you for your service.”

I hope and pray we will all take up this challenge and do the right thing for our fellow Americans.

Dr. Richard Land, BA (Princeton, magna cum laude); D.Phil. (Oxford); Th.M (New Orleans Seminary). Dr. Land served as President of Southern Evangelical Seminary from July 2013 until July 2021. Upon his retirement, he was honored as President Emeritus and he continues to serve as an Adjunct Professor of Theology & Ethics. Dr. Land previously served as President of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (1988-2013) where he was also honored as President Emeritus upon his retirement. Dr. Land has also served as an Executive Editor and columnist for The Christian Post since 2011.

Dr. Land explores many timely and critical topics in his daily radio feature, “Bringing Every Thought Captive,” and in his weekly column for CP.

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