My Southwest Airlines “A” boarding pass on flight #427 from Baltimore to Albany lost its advantage last week, as I was bumped to the back of the line for patriotic reasons. But I didn’t mind.
On this designated “Honor Flight,” about 60 military veterans, mostly in their 80s and 90s, were returning from a trip to Washington DC, where they visited the memorials that commemorate the wars they fought in. One of the privileges accorded Honor Flight veterans is to pre-board ahead of everyone else.
I’m cool with honoring these guys by promoting them to the front of the line: They reminded me of my late father, who landed on Utah Beach on the third day of the invasion of Europe in 1944. Like others of his time, he told us almost nothing about his experiences. Former NBC newsman Tom Brokaw chronicled these veterans in his best seller, whose name, “The Greatest Generation,” has become the meme for describing World War II-era soldiers.
Seeing that contingent of veterans wearing their “Honor Flight” t-shirts sparked in me a wave of sentimentality and choked-up emotion that I didn’t realize I still had. My father perfectly embodied an apt description of these veterans that I happened to bookmark while reading—in airports and during flights—Ian McEwans’ decidedly non-military novel, Solar.
“Like many men of his generation, he did not speak about his experiences and relished the ordinariness of postwar life, its tranquil routines, its tidiness and rising material well-being, and above all its lack of danger—everything that was to appear stifling to those born in the first year of the peace.”
I imagined the Honor Flight veterans as young men, photographed during basic training in their crisp, Army-green uniforms, as my father was, before the reality of war overtook them. I wondered how many of them saw soldiers drown as they stepped off their landing craft, when crews stopped short of the landing zone and disgorged troops into too-deep water—one of the stories doled out by my mother many years later. And I,wondered if others had found themselves separated from their units, left to fend for themselves by shooting and eating animals that happened into their gunsights, as my father had been, in the cold, Luxembourg winter of the Battle of the Bulge. My father spoke of this incident only because we asked him about the mounted deer’s head that hung above the door in the den of the house he built for us in 1947.
Most of the Honor Flight veterans I saw probably didn’t experience the anti-Semitism heaped upon my father—but only spoken of obliquely by my mother. And most were probably younger during the war. My father volunteered for the Army at age 32, with a one-year-old baby at home–ostensibly, according to our family’s war lore–to protect his younger, less resilient brother from the harsh realities of Army life and battle. As it was with all of his war experiences, we learned of this act of fraternal heroism only many years later—and the news did not come from Dad.
So, I didn’t mind the few minutes’ extra wait to board Flight #427. And I didn’t feel quite so much of my customary discomfort with and cynicism about “patriotism” when the procession of Honor Flight vets—many in wheelchairs—received a round of applause from other travelers as they made their way to Gate A12. And if a trip to Washington, DC—all expenses paid by the Honor Flight non-profit group—gave them and their families a sense of closure and recognition, who am I to scoff?
I asked one veteran, who was sitting near me awaiting the call to board the plane, where he had served. “Korea,” he said. “And a few years ago, the Korean government gave some of us an all-expense-paid trip to Korea, as a way of thanking us for helping them fend off the North Koreans 60 years ago.”
That remark made me wonder about something. Will America give the same respect and charity to veterans of the Viet Nam War as they age into their 70s and 80s? They were almost all draftees—young men sent into a meat grinder on an unwinnable mission that America turned against. No ticker-tape parades for them—mostly, they came home feeling burned out, used, shamed, horrified, and unacknowledged. Do veterans of an unpopular war deserve Honor Flights, too?
Logic and cynicism tell me that veterans of the Iraq wars will get more respect. Iraq War I was viewed as a “good” war [against Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait], and because the western coalition “won.” Veterans of George W. Bush’s Iraq War II may rank lower on the honor spectrum, because that conflict was more controversial [not to mention wholly unjustified] and poorly executed.
I’m afraid that our collective American consciousness feels better about drawing attention to veterans of “good” and “successful” wars than about honoring the soldiers [or should I say victims] of wars waged under dubious circumstances. We’d prefer to forget about those.
So, I have to wonder: In fifty years, who—if anyone—will pay for Honor Flights or all-expense-paid visits back to the battlefield for veterans of the war in Afghanistan?