Hello all. Thank you for coming out on this chilly, gray morning. It’s not the most ideal weather for a gathering, so I especially appreciate your making the effort to come here today and pay tribute to our veterans. For my part of this ceremony, I’d like to tell you a story:
Once upon a time, I stood at the side of the road on Guy Park Avenue and watched the Amsterdam Veterans honor their comrades by walking a length of the city road to their WWI memorial. The day was brisk but beautiful. Clusters of my neighbors stood reverently, clasping their coats against a light wind with gloved hands, smiling and greeting folks they’d known their whole lives. Much like today, they were a mix of hats, scarves, and wool in the colors of autumn… gold, plumb, brown and rust… most were older folks and a few families brought together several generations of the same height, weight and hair pattern. They talked quietly with each other, noting the falling leaves, fleeting clouds, and onset of winter in the coming weeks.
I held the hand of my little boy, Ian, who at the time had to have been about four or five years old. We were excited and happy to be at our first official parade in our partnership as mother and son. He was so young and perfect; a sprite with an immediate smile and mischievous glint in his eye. He could not imagine how deep my love for him was because, for a child, it is a given. He was born into the brilliant embers of my attention. He did not know of my long wait for him or my doubt that I’d ever be lucky enough to have a child. I gripped his mittened hand tightly as the procession started.
We watched as the veterans from wars long gone began to pass our station. A scattering of very elderly men that had survived the “War to End All Wars” and eight decades were driven in cars, still proudly wearing their dress caps, insignias, awards, badges and accoutrements. These men sat in stoic silence, weathered as the dried leaves, bearing witness to the time that had passed and memories that would soon be remembered only in books, instead of recounted person-to-person. They seemed to not notice the gathering around them. Their clouded eyes looked ahead in anticipation of their destination.
Men and a few women of WWII, who at the time were then in their late sixties and early seventies followed these vets. This was a larger group of soldiers than the first, still vital and dignified, survivors of a war of unthinkable brutality and loss. They wore, and still wear, their experiences with such pride. They had lived through a time of unsullied patriotism and vigorous optimism, when you could count on God, and County and your neighbor. The charm of that period lives on in the music of the 40’s… still lively with syncopated jazz riffs and sadly sweet, romantic ballads. Though their marching step was somewhat unpolished, they walked with a unity that can only come from the knowledge of their sure achievement in saving the world from tyranny.
Next came the men of the Korean War, men in their late-forties and early-fifties. This war is sadly referred to as the “Forgotten War.” These men walked with a solid gait, having persevered without the public accolades and attention of those that had served in the decade before or those that would come after. These soldiers walked with some ease and casually waved to the bystanders. As I watched, I understood that, had my father lived a longer life, he would have marched with this group. I squeezed my son’s hand and pointed out the beat of their feet on the pavement, and noted that my heart beat with that time.
The next wave of soldiers started to pass us. The Vietnam War Veterans were not much older than I, and I thought about my friends that had fought in that war. The times were so tumultuous and the decision to enter the military was more controversial than at any time that had preceded it in all of history. As well, the mechanisms of war were much more horrific and deadly. I thought of Kevin, a happy-go-lucky kid in our neighborhood that had come back from the sweltering humidity of Vietnam changed… more serious with an uncharacteristic edge in his demeanor. To my knowledge, he never spoke of his time there… not to his family and certainly not to us, his hometown friends. That he and others had returned to a nation that questioned the actions of these young men and women still haunts our days. These young soldiers made the commitment to serve our government without public reverence for their decision. That is a wound that must never be delivered again.
Contemporary men and women in service, marching crisply in unison, followed the Vets of the 60’s and 70’s. Some had already served in the Gulf and some could expect to be shipped to areas of conflict around the world at any time. They looked formidable in their desert combat uniforms, all tautly following command. I looked across the road at a mother anxiously scanning the unit for the unforgettable face of her child, and watched for the moment of recognition as she located the object of her love. Brimming with pride, she yelled out a name with joy and pointed rapidly so that her friends would not miss out on the gift of this moment. The realization of the sacrifice that she and her family had made was beginning to reach me like a scent carried lightly on a breeze.
The ROTC students from Amsterdam High School followed in step, their beautiful, unlined faces intent on their task. They lead younger children informally walking together from the boy scouts, girl scouts and, tying it all up at the end, the youngest Webelos and Brownies that may begin this march at age seven. Suddenly, the breath was pulled from my chest and the full impact of this parade of souls came to me. I stared incredulously down at the little boy at the end of my arm and could see the whole of this impossible offering.
The oldest veteran to the youngest, silly sprout walks a path that tears our loved ones from the warmth of our hearth and sends them to the edge of the earth for the ideals our government is built on.
Regardless of politics, public furor, danger or exhaustion, our soldiers serve willingly, selflessly and courageously that we may continue to live in peace and prosperity. They enter into situations of loneliness, peril, boredom and chaos that others may have hope. Those that have marched in parades have returned to us. Remember also that others have not, or that they have returned to us broken and in need of our full support as a nation, as a community, as friends and as family.
THIS is what this day, Veterans Day, is all about.
Having grasped this concept, as desperately as I had held the hand of my son so long ago, let us all acknowledge that there can be no greater calling than that of a soldier and extend our deepest gratitude for the gifts that they have given so freely to us.
Thank you to the Veterans Commission for continuing this tradition and thank you with all of our hearts to each and every veteran gathered here today. God bless you and keep you, forever and always.