Giving Thanks for Freedom – Remembering Those Who Served

Dr. James R. Wright, Member, South Orange County Community College District Board of Trustees
Colonel (Retired) United States Air Force

Veterans Day is a day of remembrance.  It is a day to remember all veterans who have served in American wars. All have sacrificed. Some have sacrificed profoundly. In the United States, November 11th is observed as Armistice Day to commemorate when the allied forces and Germany signed an armistice during the eleventh (11th) hour of the eleventh (11th) day of the eleventh (11th) month in 1918 at the end of World war I. In 1954, U.S. Congress changed the name to Veterans Day to honor American veterans of all wars.

This year Veterans Day falls on Sunday. So we gather today to remember. To remember and pay our respect to those who have served and especially to those who have fallen. They are our war heroes.

I was privileged to serve for 27 years on active duty as an officer in the United States Air Force from 1 July 1965 – 1 September 1992. I retired twenty years ago. During my Air Force career, I had three tours of duty (16 years) at the United States Air Force Academy, north of Colorado Springs, Colorado, serving my last three years as Commander of the Air Force Academy Preparatory School. I also had two tours (7 years) at the Technical Operations Division (TOD), McClellan AFB, Sacramento, California. During my first four years, our mission at McClellan was classified. In my second tour of duty, ten years later, I was the Director of the McClellan Central Laboratory (MCL). We could finally tell people that our mission was to monitor the Nuclear Test Ban Treaties. We did all the laboratory analysis of samples collected from the Chernobyl Nuclear Accident in the Soviet Union in 1986.
I had a wonderful Air Force career.

Let me focus my remarks for a a few minutes on those who served and fell while serving in Vietnam. This is the conflict that I am most familiar with.  I recall the day Vietnam went from the back pages of newspapers and other periodicals and became a household word and for thousands of American men became something that changed their lives. The Vietnam conflict occurred in Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia) from November 1955 to the fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975.
U.S. military involvement ended 15 August 1973 as a result of the Case-Church Amendment passed by the U.S. Congress.

My wife and I have had the opportunity to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. (four years ago.) Individuals cannot visit the Memorial without being intensely moved. The wall can be spiritual and yet imposing. It is a monument but not one that is of statues of soldiers or images of commanders on horses. The wall is simply a list of names, but it is no ordinary list (panel after panel of names; column upon column; row upon row of names.)

At present 58,267 names of U.S. service members that died in the conflict are listed.  Recognizing names after name after name of those who were once comrades in arms, one is struck by the spirit of sacrifice, of consecration that the wall represents.
No one can say for sure if the passage of time can answer the question of whether or not the Vietnam War was necessary or if the view of it will change.

Those who served, those who fought, and especially those who died were willing to offer themselves in the conflict in order that America remain true to its commitment of freedom, liberty, and justice for all.

Nobler than feats of bravery under fire is the quiet valor of those who stepped forward when the country called, even as many others decry the endeavor. Regardless of the eventual political judgment about this war, the nobility of that response by those citizen soldiers, I believe, is Vietnam’s legacy to the nation.

Two names are on that wall that I am familiar with are:
1st Lt William Ronald Beasley; went to Vietnam 7/25/1966; died 9/25/1966; two months after his arrival as a helicopter pilot.
Capt. George Francis Volk; Went to Vietnam 7/15/1966; died 4/21/1967; nine months after arrival as an Army infantry officer.

Let me now transition, on this Veterans Day Ceremony, to those who served in the conflicts (Iraq and Afghanistan) that we have been involved in or are involved in at this time.

The ongoing war against terrorism is very different than the many prior wars. The enemy is difficult to identify and victory will not come in a documented, formal surrender. Such a war may continue for the seeable future, at least till the end of 2014.  But, again, like many other wars, it is being fought for freedom, and that alone makes the fighting worthwhile.

Veterans who return to the home front may be haunted by the lingering images of war and conflict. The transition from the intensity of military life to a more sufficient civilian life can be overwhelming. In some ways, it is similar to the experiences of laid-off workers; both groups may feel disoriented and suffer losses of identity and work related friendships.

Some veterans hope college will ease their discomfort. Actually many may have joined the military with the ultimate goal of college, and the G.I Bills helping them afford the education that otherwise would be out of reach. On top of the usual new student fears, they may also have a spouse or young family to care for and support. They may even have fears of being singled out because they fought in an unpopular war. A supportive and informed faculty and staff including administrators, therefore, is the key to the veterans’ success. To succeed, veterans need our understanding, compassion and respect.

Before I close let me suggest two principles for helping and understanding the value of our veterans.

Veterans can feel very alone on campus.
When a service member is discharged from the military, it is termed a “separation” and it comes with all the heartbreak and disorientation that being torn from one’s family brings. They just spent the last several years tied to some type of social system, whether it was a brigade, battalion, company, squadron, platoon, team or just one with a battle buddy. During those years, solitude was rare. Connecting student veterans can effectively ease this isolation, and it is especially helpful if connection can be made between new veterans and those who have successfully completed a semester or two.

Student veterans are one of America’s greatest untapped human resources. They are emotionally mature, goal oriented, mission driven, and experienced leaders.  They work tirelessly to achieve their objectives and look for ways to make meaningful contributions. They are self sufficient; they will only ask questions when they cannot find the answer themselves. They not only understand the concept of sacrifice for the greater good, they have lived it. They are respectful. They think globally and bypass things that are trivial or trendy.

In conclusion, they are the kind of role models we need on our campuses and in our colleges. Hopefully they graduate to lives of fulfillment in our work places. We owe them our gratitude. But more important, we owe them a chance to have meaningful new careers and fulfilling civilian lives, from which we will all greatly benefit.