Don is a down-to-earth guy who is perhaps a bit more wide than he is tall. He has a humble spirit and is always willing to lend a hand to anybody who needs a lift…literally. Don, with his grandson in tow, often picks us up in the early hours of the morning in his huge pick-up truck that has every gadget ever invented installed on the dash and hauls us off to Boston Logan as we take off on our latest trek to some part of the world. Don is also a proud veteran. He served in the Army and experienced the worst of war in Vietnam. He is the reason for this story.
My first year on Cape Cod, I decided to organize a community-wide event on Veteran’s Day. If we were going to have a national holiday to honor veterans, then it should be more than a day off work or a chance for a weekend get away. There were a couple of local parades and other celebrations, but it often seemed as if the people on the Cape who really cared about honoring our veterans were the veterans themselves. This was not right, especially since in 2008 our country was fully engaged in Afghanistan and Iraq, with casualty lists appearing daily in the newspapers.
I challenged my flock to give up an hour of their holiday to gather and honor our vets. One friend volunteered to round up a color guard and Tim, another friend, wrote a beautiful song for the event entitled, “Send Me a Soldier Tonight.” The program included stories (that I found on-line) of veterans who fought in wars all the way back to the Revolutionary War. I thought it was better to hear veterans’ stories in their own words, rather than for me to share my thoughts on war and peace, especially since I flunked out of college ROTC! We also planned to sing the Navy Hymn, “Eternal Father Strong to Save,” as well as “America the Beautiful” and our National Hymn, “God of Our Fathers.” I had no idea how many would choose to attend so I was deeply appreciative when about 30 folks showed up for our first-ever Veteran’s Day event. Even better, attendance has grown to nearly 100 over the years.
The first one went quite well. The color guard presented the colors, the songs were sung and the stories heard. At the conclusion, the colors were retired. I gave a blessing and we concluded by singing “America the Beautiful.” As I walked down the center aisle toward the back of the church, I noticed Don. Wearing a colorful Vietnam War Veteran’s leather vest that also displayed the name of his army unit and the dates of his service, he stood at rigid attention in the middle of the aisle. His hand was raised in salute as tears streaked his face. I stopped and gave him a hug. He whispered in a voice choked with emotion, “This is the first time anyone ever thanked me for serving my country.”
From that moment on, I knew that we had to organize a Veteran’s Day event as well as highlight our Memorial Day service every year. After all, Memorial Day is not really a celebration of the first day of the summer season on Cape Cod. Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day are times to express our gratitude to those men and women, like Don, who gave or are giving their lives or a part of their lives so that we may walk this God’s earth free and equal.
Now it may seem odd to you after reading this that I am as close to being a pacifist as you can get. I do understand that occasionally pure evil does arise in the world that might make a war just. Perhaps the horrific war being waged by ISIS in the Middle East is one of them. It makes me nauseous when I think about it. Even as awful as it is, however, I still TRY to believe that there must be a better way, a more peaceful way, to solve our differences other than resorting to violence. I also believe that, if there is a good God in the heaven, that God looks down upon any act of violence and weeps. If God is about love, then God must also be about peace.
When it comes to our veterans, however, it does not matter if I am an “almost-pacifist.” I can and should still take the time to thank Don and any other veterans who I encounter on my earthly journey. After all, I have only theorized about war and peace, while they actually put their lives on the line on our behalf.
On Tuesday, November 11th, perhaps you will encounter a proud veteran who has never been thanked. I think you now know exactly what to do: A simple expression of gratitude will make a world of difference to a veteran who has never been thanked.
Don, thanks again.
John E. Holt, Cotuit, MA