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Editorial: On Veterans Day, a thank you to the best of America

Editorial: On Veterans Day, a thank you to the best of America

The Veterans Day Parade in downtown Roanoke.

The Veterans Day Parade in downtown Roanoke.

Listen to their stories.

U.S. Army Corp. Franklin W. Buckles, the last surviving American veteran of World War I, died Feb. 27, 2011, just 26 days after his 110th birthday.

In April, Buckles’ dream of a National World War I Memorial in Washington, D.C., was finally realized, and he was recognized in the dedication ceremony as the last of the U.S. Doughboys, though he was no longer with us to share what he thought of the fruit of his labors.

Of the 4.7 million American men and women who served in that epic conflict — that H.G. Wells, who it must be remembered was a satirist, once named The War That Will End War — all are gone. Whatever tales they had to share of their service that weren’t recorded for posterity are lost now to history.

World War II had such a deep impact on life as we all know it that its major figures — FDR, Truman, Hitler, Churchill, Stalin, Eisenhower, Patton, Mussolini, Hirohito — have instant name recognition even in this era that sees us inundated from all directions by electronic distractions.

Yet the numbers who experienced those monumental events first-hand are dwindling. The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs projects that about 240,000 American veterans of World War II are still with us in 2021.

In March, the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford estimated that only about 2,500 participants in the D-Day invasion remain.

Friday brought the sad news of the death of Bernard Marie at age 82. A native of France, Marie was 5 years old on June 6, 1944, when American forces landed at Normandy to liberate his country. After moving to America, he made it his mission to see that dozens upon dozens of American World War II veterans received the French Legion of Honor medal. His involvement with the D-Day Memorial prompted him to move to Roanoke.

He held annual commemorative dinners to honor the veterans of D-Day. He listened to their stories.

Those stories deserve an audience year-round, not just on a single day of remembrance. Nonetheless Veterans Day serves as a reminder to all of us to appreciate our military veterans and thank them for their time, labor and sacrifice.

Veterans Day began as Armistice Day, commemorating the date that Germany and the Allies of World War I signed the armistice that ended the fighting on the Western Front. Armistice Day also honored the memory of the American military personnel who died during that war.

President Woodrow Wilson asked his fellow Americans to fill their reflections on this day “with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service, and with gratitude for the victory.”

A U.S. Navy Veteran of World War II from Alabama, Raymond Weeks, petitioned Army Chief of Staff Gen. Dwight Eisenhower to change Armistice Day to Veterans Day, a holiday that would honor all veterans of all wars. Seven years later, in 1954, when Eisenhower was president, he signed the bill that turned Weeks’ proposal into law.

The Roanoke Times marked the approaching holiday with a special section published Sunday that shares, and records for posterity, a few of these valuable stories.

“Veteran Voices” visits John Koelsch of Salem, who was sent home after 4½ months of combat in Vietnam with two Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star and the burden of having killed a man in a face-to-face shootout. Koelsch has become a major regional voice in advocating for art therapy for veterans, talking every vet he possibly can into entering the National Veterans Creative Arts Competition.

There’s Roy Muse and James Jordan, two Black Army veterans and Purple Heart recipients in Franklin County who chose not to pursue medical discharges after they were wounded in Vietnam because they needed the opportunities an honorable discharge would bring.

There’s U.S. Marine veteran Dan Villarial, 92, who enlisted two years after World War II had officially ended and still saw hair-raising action in Europe and Israel. He thought he was headed to Korea in 1950, but his train was diverted to North Carolina, and soon after he met his future wife.

Every week Marines who did go to Korea, and who survived the freezing conditions of the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, meet for breakfast at the Roanoker Restaurant. Their breakfast club is open to any Marine, and even a few from other branches, whether or not they’ve seen combat.

We meet Army veterans Mike and Beth Deems of Glade Hill, who met when they were both stationed in Hawaii in 2000. Mike Deems served for more than a decade, including two yearlong combat deployment, and the Deems’ marriage has had to endure the reverberations of his absences. This year, the couple turned to a Christian program called Operation Heal Our Patriots to reconnect with each other and reinforce their faith.

Two of the tales remind us of the ultimate sacrifice the enlisted make to preserve our way of life.

On Halloween in 1941, more than a month before Pearl Harbor, William Harding Newton became the first person from our region killed in an attack associated with World War II, when a German U-boat sank an American destroyer, the USS Reuben James.

On Aug. 31, Naval Aircrewman 2nd Class James Buriak of Salem died in a helicopter crash off the coast of California. During an off-duty visit to a Guam beach 19 months earlier, Buriak saved the life of a man who was drowning.

The effects of military service, good and bad, last for life. Appreciation for what veterans have done for the rest of us should last longer than a lifetime.

In April, at the dedication of the National World War I Memorial, the executive director of the World War I Centennial Commission, Daniel Dayton, told the members of the armed forces who were watching, “You represent the best of America.”

On this day, we thank all veterans.

Listen to their stories.

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