The family tree is full of them. Charlie, for instance, had lied about his age to join, a habit he continued when he met my mother, only in the other direction when he didn’t tell her he was actually younger than she was until their wedding day. But the lanky kid from Waco was determined to do his part in the war nonetheless, and so the Navy put him to laying submarine nets in the Pacific even though he couldn’t swim. While half a world away, my wife’s father John found himself a German P.O.W. before managing to escape and somehow make his way back across hundreds of hostile miles.
Then there was Durwood whom I never met but often heard about while growing up. For my mom’s favorite cousin was also there on that fateful morning in June when Operation Overlord, more commonly known as D-Day, began the beginning of the end of the war that had ravaged all of Europe. Only Durwood never came back from the invasion and I still have the photo of him, looking for all the world like just another teenage kid in a uniform that seemed too big for him, doing a task that was similarly oversized for his simple farm boy upbringing.
Roy, too, died while serving, though later on and not in a far-off land. His Navy jet crashed far closer to home one night, leaving behind a wife and three young children, my wife’s only aunt and cousins. Then later still, my older cousin Benny (rhymes with Vinny, I know) went to what is still the largest U.S. Air Force base in the Pacific, the Japanese island of Okinawa. And though it had been several years since the last major battle of the Pacific war took place on that rock, with some 50,000 Allies killed or wounded, I still remember how the family prayed for him and hung upon every letter he wrote.
When Vietnam came along, another cousin closer to my own age, Bobby, was drafted. And though like Benny he returned from his military service overseas, he brought back numerous demons from that jungle with him as well. He died far younger than he should have, having never been quite the same after his experiences there.
All of them had one thing in common, however, which is that when the call to duty came, they responded and went. And it strikes me that such has been the experience of millions of men and women over the years who on this day we honor as veterans. For in serving their country they served all of us as well, growing up much faster than many ever have to do.
The next time you see a veteran go ahead and thank them for their service, even if the phrase sounds a bit cliché these days. And when you say your prayers today, don’t forget the vet. For the very fact that you and I have the freedom to practice our faith so openly is in large part because of what they did.
Even if they had to lie about their age to do it.