A few months ago, I had the distinct privilege of being part of a “Welcome Home” reception for a group of WWII Veterans at our local airport.
Honor Flight, a non-profit group that makes it possible for WWII vets to travel to the WWII Memorial in Washington, DC, had taken this group up to DC for the day, and my kids and I were there to welcome them back. These were the men and women of Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation”, and we wanted to do our part to thank them.
Bear in mind that the youngest of these folks were in their 80’s. Some were in wheelchairs, some had walkers and canes, and some walked with great difficulty. But every one of them moved through our cheering, flag-waving throng with humility.
They weren’t expecting us to be there. In fact, they weren’t expecting anything other than a trip to DC to see the memorial built in memory of their fallen comrades. They felt that the trip was honor enough.
Yet, those of us in the crowd knew that there was no way that we could possibly give them the honor that they truly deserve.
The flags were wonderful; the military band was rousing; the children’s choir sublime. But how could those of us who weren’t with these vets in those dark days truly grasp and appreciate what these brave men and women had done?
Some had caps that gave us clues, with words on them such as “Kamikaze Survivor” and “Iwo Jima”.
Some wore vests with similar phrases embroidered on them: “D-Day Utah Beach”, “Pearl Harbor Survivor”
Some were even fit and trim enough to wear their 60+ year-old uniforms, complete with service medals and ribbons.
Virtually all of them had tears in their eyes.
As I said earlier, the vets weren’t expecting such a reception. They weren’t expecting anything at all.
You see, in those awful days, there was a job to be done, and these men and women enlisted in the services by the millions to do it. When that job was over, the fortunate ones simply came home and went back to their previous lives. They weren’t looking for honor or glory. They just wanted their lives back.
Yet here was a crowd 70 years removed from the war, cheering for them as they came down from the concourse.
On the way to the airport, I told my kids a little bit about what these veterans had done, how we needed to express our gratitude for their service to the United States of America and her people, and that we needed to express it now, before it was too late.
My kids probably don’t know enough WWII history to understand the terror and death that faced these men at Iwo, Normandy, Pearl Harbor, Okinawa, or The Bulge. I know enough to be thankful that my Dad was too young to serve, and that my uncles came back alive.
We stood in line, and I shook hands with the first few veterans that came past me, thanking them for their service. Then, my kids spontaneously began to do the same. My 17 year-old daughter began shaking their hands, looking them in the eye, and saying “Thank you for your service.” My 12 year-old son jumped out into the stream of veterans, shaking hands and giving hugs.
Several of the veterans even asked to have their picture taken with my kids. That’s when their Dad just about lost his composure. Tears of gratitude filled my eyes. The veterans got their “Welcome Home”, and my kids got a powerful lesson in gratitude – both giving and receiving.
It’s sad to know that the remaining WWII vets are dying off day by day. In a few years, there won’t be any of them left. So, if you see an elderly man or woman with cap, vest, or scarf emblazoned with a service emblem, please take a minute to thank them for their service.
And for that matter, if you see any man or woman in uniform (that includes policemen, firemen, and EMTs), stop and thank them.
The world would be a far different and darker place were it not for their efforts.