America's Veterans: Heroes Among Us

Where are the heroes? In today’s cynical world, where we are all so imperfect, the prevailing thought among many is that none of us is worthy of the term "hero." The mainstream media, fixated upon our own failings, ensures that we all know of the misbehavior of the American guards at Abu Ghraib. But how many of us know of the heroics of Paul Ray Smith, the only serviceman as of yet to earn the nation’s highest military award, the Medal of Honor, during Operation Iraqi Freedom?

Sadly, many of our schools are of little help, either, as textbooks generally gloss over American military history, and its heroes, in favor of social history and activists. When they do cover America’s wars, like the media, focus is oftentimes on America’s wrongs, real or perceived. A textbook is more likely to talk about the negative effects of the atomic bomb or of Japanese-American internment at home during World War II than of the heroic sacrifices of the millions of men and women who stood up to two of the most murderous ideologies in human history, Nazism and Japanese Imperialism.

If the history of World War II, sometimes dubbed the "last good war," is presented in this manner, it is not too difficult to guess how the history of our fight to save Vietnam is portrayed. This intentional exclusion of the importance of our military, and of the stories of valor of so many who have served, has real and devastating consequences on the way students and young people view the world.

This willful ignorance of the heroic deeds, and heroic causes, of our service members past and present sometimes manifests itself in a big blowup, such as the recent flap over a student senator at the University of Washington opposing a memorial for an alumnus and recipient of the Medal of Honor, Gregory "Pappy" Boyington, because she "didn’t believe a member of the Marine Corps was an example of the sort of person UW wanted to produce." Usually, however, it merely causes the legacy of these heroes to, like General MacArthur’s old soldier, fade away.

An example of this is the fading away of one of America’s great traditions, that of the celebration of Memorial Day. For decades, every town of any size across the United States has held a parade on Memorial Day, providing an opportunity for people of all ages to come together, recognize those who have served, and remember those who have died in service to their country. In recent years, however, the traditional observance of Memorial Day has been diminished. Local parades are finding it difficult to find participants, and many are disbanding altogether. Meanwhile, at many cemeteries, the graves of those who gave their lives for this country are oftentimes ignored and neglected. It seems that Memorial Day has become, for many of us, nothing more than a long weekend and the unofficial kickoff to summer.

It is not only in small towns that the significance of Memorial Day has been lost. For decades, Washington, D.C. — the nation’s capital — was without a Memorial Day parade of its own. In 2004, a number of military and civic organizations, including the World War II Veterans Committee, a project of the American Veterans Center, came together to sponsor a "Parade Salute to World War II Veterans," coinciding with the dedication of the National World War II Memorial. The response was overwhelming, and the decision was made to bring back the long-lost tradition of a parade each year in the form of the National Memorial Day Parade, an event to honor all of America’s veterans and honored war dead from the Revolution through Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The second annual National Memorial Day Parade, scheduled for noon on May 29 and taking place along Constitution Avenue, will seek to honor our uniformed heroes, past and present. The event will begin with the Pledge of Allegiance, led by eight recipients of the Medal of Honor, and an Air Force flyover. Veterans of World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and Desert Storm will be participating, and will be led by distinguished veterans of each era serving as honorary marshals. Serving as honorary marshal for World War I will be 106-year-old Lloyd Brown, one of only about 30 remaining veterans of that war.

The highlight of the parade will be the inclusion of more than 600 military personnel recently returned from Iraq and Afghanistan. The National Memorial Day Parade is one of the very first opportunities for the public to come together and thank these men and women for defending freedom at home and abroad.

While Memorial Day should be a day of reflection on the heroism and sacrifice of those who have given their lives for freedom, it should not be the only day. Their legacies can, and should live on, but it is up to us to ensure that they will. And you need not come to Washington on Memorial Day in order to find heroes. Just look around, as they are among us, the millions of veterans who, through the generations, have stepped up to serve their country.