Thursday, May 22, 2008

A Salute to America's World War II Veterans

They're coming from all over the country, from every state in the Union. This weekend, World War II veterans from across America will converge on the nation's capital. Some are traveling thousands of miles to be part of the Memorial Day ceremonies this weekend -- in particular, to witness the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. (above). Many of them are flying aboard chartered airplanes known as Honor Flights, which are free airline flights provided to World War II veterans so they can visit the World War II Memorial. The Honor Flights had modest beginnings: They started in 2005, when six small planes carried 12 World War II veterans from Springfield, Ohio to the Washington, D.C. Now, thanks to the generous donations of Americans from all walks of life, the Honor Flights have expanded into most states. And these aren't just puddle-jumpers making the short hop to the capital. Many of them are larger passenger planes carrying up to 100 or so veterans. As veteran Ben Lesesne of Yuma, Arizona, put it, "I'd like for veterans to see this before they pass on. They say that we're dying at a rate of 1,500 a month in this country. I think every veteran of World War II should see that before they pass on. It only took them 60 years to build it."

It is deeply poignant to see these men -- now in their mid-80s or older -- making this pilgrimage to witness a profound monument to freedom. These are men who came of age in a very different time, and they help us keep alive the memories of the many noble sacrifices Americans made during this trying period of their history. It seems like not long ago that World War I veterans were in their twilight years and World War II veterans were in their sixties. I remember watching the D-Day ceremonies back in 1984 -- on the fortieth anniversary -- and thinking how young and robust the vets still looked. Today, a good number of them use walkers and wheelchairs and canes, but you can still see that youthful gleam in many a vets' eye. Back when NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw's The Greatest Generation was published in 1998, many critics accused him excessively romanticizing a very difficult period of American history (while others knocked him for mediocre writing). Maybe there was some truth to the criticism. But one can refrain from Greatest Generation nostalgia tripping and still appreciate the amazing sacrifices made by these young men to safeguard democracy.

But as Ben Lesesne points out, the men and women of this generation are passing away in great numbers. The Veterans Administration offers slightly lower figures than Lesesne, but even the VA estimates that 3 million men and women who served in the Armed Services during World War II (out of a total of 16 million) are still alive and that 1,200 are dying per day. So we're beginning to lose these precious people. That is why Honor Flight is such a tremendous service. It flies veterans for free so they can witness the monument to their heroism. To see these aging men gathered at the memorial -- remembering, laughing, weeping, reflecting -- is to see a nation at its finest.

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