Last year, America experienced the most contentious election cycle in modern history, and 2017 has continued driving Americans into an even deeper divide. The violent protests that suffused newspapers in 2016 have become even more rampant (and more violent) in 2017.
In many cases, our political leaders have enabled, not diffused, the chaos; rather than cooling tensions many have stoked the flames for political gain. It’s become clear, at least for this moment in our history, that with the hyper-politicized and polarized climate, America cannot unify behind her elected officials. Now more than ever, we desperately need unifying symbols of hope, but it seems like there are none.
Or perhaps we are not looking in the right places.
For Veterans Day, it’s time we take focus away from the political leaders over-exposed on our television sets and shine a light on the unsung heroes; men and women who, in most cases, have done more to protect our freedom (with little to no recognition), than have our political leaders. It is America’s veterans who have stood at the front lines through the years. They are the gatekeepers, if you will, protecting the privileges so commonly taken for granted – and often abused – today: most notably the freedom of speech and the right to peaceably protest.
Their sacrifice often changes the course of their lives, yet it goes unnoticed by the vast majority of people for whom the sacrifice was paid. What does their sacrifice look like?
Well, in addition to the extensive time veterans and active-duty servicemen and women spend away from their friends and families, often in grueling conditions and facing traumatic experiences, many have suffered severe life-altering injuries as a result of their service. For U.S. Marine Corps Corporal Donny Daughenbaugh, it was a gunshot wound to the face while on a night foot patrol south of Baghdad in 2004. Sergeant First Class Michael Schlitz lost both hands and eyesight in one eye while suffering burns to 85 percent of his body after being hit by an IED in 2007 while serving in Iraq.
U.S. Army Captain Leslie Smith lost her left leg and is now blind after being diagnosed with a blood infection, likely due to a chemical agent while serving in Bosnia at the Nuclear Biological Chemical Corps. For Shilo Harris, the son of a Vietnam veteran who grew up wanting to serve his country, his sacrifice resulted in severe burns that covered 35 percent of his body and the subsequent loss of his ears, tip of his nose, and three fingers after being struck by an IED during his second deployment to Iraq with the 10th Mountain Division.
Then there are those who will never get to share their story, those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice, losing their lives while serving their country.
Soldiers like Fr. Emil Kapuan come to mind, a battlefield chaplain during the Korean War, who earned a reputation for battlefield heroics despite never carrying a weapon. Kapuan earned a Bronze Star for braving fire to drag wounded soldiers to safety, and he stayed behind during evacuation to tend to the wounded and dying. He eventually lost his life in a POW camp where he offered hope and comfort to his fellow prisoners and brothers in arms.
Does the name James Trimble ring a bell? Probably not. And yet he put aside a promising major league baseball career to voluntarily join the Marine Corps in 1944. He lost his life in the battle of Iwo Jima when his position was overrun by a massive Japanese attack. Even once-legendary names like Jimmy Doolittle – who led 80 men on an impossible mission to attack Imperial Japan following Pearl Harbor – are today largely forgotten. Doolittle’s co-pilot and last survivor of the Doolittle Raiders – 102 year old Lt. Colonel Richard Cole – will be among the veterans recognized in the upcoming Veterans Day television special, "American Valor: A Salute to Our Heroes" – a reminder of the heroes who have bound us together over the generations.
In these tumultuous times, these are the names we should look upon; their example, we should emulate.
If one by one, Americans journeyed each day with the mentality that our veterans have carried — honor, integrity and selflessness, which are the core attributes of a true leader -- prejudice and injustice would subside. Let us honor our courageous veterans not only by memory, but by actively applying their example to our daily lives; on this Veterans Day, and every day thereafter.
Tim Holbert is Senior Vice President of the American Veterans Center, and producer of two forthcoming Veterans Day television specials: American Valor: A Salute to Our Heroes (airing nationally and to our military personnel on American Forces Network), and The Wounded Warrior Experience (airing on Veterans Day – Saturday, November 11 at 3 p.m. EST on the Fox Business Network.
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