Last month, I had the privilege of hearing a man named C.C. Collie at a Memorial Day celebration in Dallas. Mr. Collie is a nonagenarian who spent WWII on a U.S. Navy destroyer during the final bloody year of the Pacific campaign. After almost seven decades, this was the first time he had told his story in public. Mr. Collie spoke slowly, but he was quick-witted and engaging, and the audience sat spellbound as he talked.
C.C.'s story was one of war and sacrifice, fear and courage -- hardship and loss. It was a story of boys who became men in the crucible of war, motivated by love of country and love for their brothers-in-arms. These were young men, separated from their families for years, fighting a hellish war against the cruelest of enemies. It was a tale of men who set aside personal dreams to fight for the future of their children and grandchildren; men who willingly sailed into Harm's Way because it was their responsibility to do so. Duty meant something to them.
Back home, America was a nation uncertain of her fate but bonded together in shared sacrifice. The war touched everyone...no one was immune. But she responded with a collective sense of unity and strength never seen before or sense. It was America at her very best.
The war ended and C.C. told us how he and the others came home. They went back to school. They started families and careers. They started over. And they tried to bury their memories of the war.
Combat veterans rarely talked about their experiences. It just wasn't their way. What a tragedy for the rest of us.
When I think of C.C. and his generation of warriors, I wonder what might have happened if they had been more willing to talk about the war? To share with their children what it feels like to lose a brother? To describe to neighbors what it's like to be scared to death...and still press on? To somehow convey to those safely out of harm's way that there are indeed certain things worth dying for?
What would it have meant to subsequent generations, hungry for a sense of purpose, to hear the words of men like C.C.? How might his wisdom have changed those desperate for something, anything, to show them what it means to be a patriot -- what it means to be an American? What direction might our country have turned with that hard-won knowledge in hand?
But the wisdom was lost with their silence. And now these warriors are almost all gone.
After the Korean War, it was a similar story. Veterans locked away memories of combat and moved on with their lives. I've heard countless stories of senior men and women who only learned of their parent's heroism upon their deaths. It was not something they ever talked about in life.
When the Vietnam warriors came home, the country wasn't interested in hearing their experiences. The ambiguous nature of the war obscured the sacrifices of those who fought it. So many of them simply slipped into obscurity, isolated, alone, and unable to get past the horrors of what they had seen. Their wisdom was lost, as well.
Perhaps now, we have a new chance to teach our children what it means to sacrifice... to serve a purpose higher than one's self... indeed, what it means to be a patriot.
Although our ranks are small, this generation of Post 9/11 combat veterans has endured America's longest period of sustained warfare. We have sacrificed mightily. What's more, we all volunteered because we understood that this is what Americans are supposed to do. We have the same wisdom that C.C. Collie earned in his generation's war.
It's time for us to start talking. It's time for America to hear what we have to say.