A grateful nation remembers
As leader of the world's largest veterans organization, I often have the privilege of meeting some important people. No, I am not referring to our elected officials, business leaders or celebrities. I am speaking of the members of the U.S. military.
Can any CEO or distinguished Ivy League graduate truly claim to be under more pressure than the 21-year-old squad leader walking a patrol in Baghdad? Do they really have more responsibility than the young commander of a nuclear-powered submarine? Do they have as much on the line as the mechanic fixing a $2 billion Stealth bomber?
"Nothing in our lives will ever be as important as this," said Lt.Col Henry Mucci in the 2005 true-to-life film "The Great Raid." He makes the statement prior to leading the rescue of more than 500 American prisoners of war held by the Japanese. While Mucci's mission was spectacularly successful, America is blessed because millions of men and women realized -- and still realize -- that nothing in their lives is as important as defending this nation. For many veterans, it was important enough to endure long separations from their families, miss the births of their children, freeze in subzero temperatures, bake in wild jungles, lose limbs and, far too often, lose their lives.
Sadly, their deeds are frequently unappreciated.
In an essay early this year, Army Sergeant Eddie Jeffers wrote, "Even thousands of miles away, in Ramadi, Iraq, the cries and screams and complaints of the ungrateful reach me. In a year, I will be thrust back into society from a life and mentality that doesn't fit your average man. And then, I will be alone. And then, I will walk down the streets of America, and see the yellow ribbon stickers on the cars of the same people who compare our President to Hitler."
Unfortunately, Sgt. Jeffers won't get to walk down the streets of America in a year. On Sept. 19, he was killed in Iraq. He was 23.
This brave hero is not the only veteran who has heard the screams and complaints of the ungrateful. When Congress refuses to pass mandatory funding for VA health care, veterans are disrespected. When heroes are denied access to VA facilities, veterans are disrespected. When schools tell the military to keep its recruiters away, veterans are disrespected. When a wartime Army general is called a traitor, veterans are disrespected. When military and veterans funding bills are held up because of political squabbling, veterans are disrespected.
Fortunately, when a soldier walks into an American Legion post, he is given the thanks of a grateful organization. If we put soldiers in boots, and put those boots in harm's way, the American Legion family knows it must support them in every way.
Not only must we support the veteran but we must also support their families, as we demonstrate through The American Legion Legacy Fund, which provides scholarships to the children of heroes like Sgt. Eddie Jeffers. We also show our support through the Family Support Network, Temporary Financial Assistance and the National Emergency Fund, just to name a few.
We are committed to finding good jobs for Sgt. Jeffers' comrades by hosting career fairs and urging Congress to maintain a strong veterans preference program for federal employment. Companies understand that it's smart business to hire veterans, and when members of the Guard and Reserves deploy, it is America's business to ensure that their civilian careers do not suffer.
We must not forget the unique needs of women veterans. Women are major contributors to our military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq, and many have given their lives in the War on Terror. VA must be prepared to adequately treat the special needs of our female veterans.
It is tragic that the men and women who allow us to be safe in our homes are often without homes themselves when they shed their uniforms. An estimated 23 percent of America's homeless are veterans. Of these homeless Americans, 89 percent were honorably discharged. Too often today's tattered citizen of the street was yesterday's toast-of-the-town in a crisp uniform with rows of shining medals.
But all is not grim. When my predecessor, Paul Morin, asked Americans to donate $50,000 so wounded warriors at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany could receive comfort items, the American Legion family and its friends responded in a big way -- raising more than $300,000 for these heroes. Moreover, the quality of health care provided at most VA centers is consistently rated among the best in the world. Communities across our great country have recognized the value of military service. And the American GI consistently tops opinion polls and surveys as the most respected person in America.
Pride in ones' military service is a bond shared by nearly all who have served. This pride is on display on every obituary page in the country, where military service -- regardless of how many decades have passed and subsequent achievements reached -- is mentioned with the death notice of nearly every deceased veteran.
Although the successful businessman may have closed multimillion-dollar deals and raised a wonderful family, what single accomplishment tops the decisive actions he took during the siege of Khe Sanh which saved the lives of several of his fellow Marines?
Fewer than 10 percent of Americans can claim the title "veteran." And while Veterans Day is Nov. 11, we should thank our veterans every day. It's the least a grateful nation can do.
-- Marty Conatser of Champaign, Ill., is national commander of the American Legion.