A few weeks ago, when autumn gold colored Colorado's Western Slope, I stood at the cemetery on the hill overlooking our valley. A couple of hundred people gathered -- quite a few for our small town. Folks talked with friends and neighbors, shared hugs with those who were special, nodded in appreciation of warm sunshine and calm blue skies. Then, without apparent signal, voices around me stopped in mid-sentence and I turned toward the direction everyone was looking. Sudden silence was broken only with sounds of marching feet, as the VFW's color guard approached with two flags -- an Air Force eagle on one, the other, a familiar red, white and blue. Although I have seen military funerals on television and in movies, this was firsthand for the first time.
I wish that those whose loved ones are fighting in Iraq could have been there to experience what today in our country rarely happens. Not because of similar background or ethnicity, but rather in spite of our differences, a distinct sense of unity connected us. Third-, fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-generation Coloradans were there for one of their own, a descendant of pioneers.
Later comers to our community knew the retired pilot as another ski company employee. Youngsters whose lives he touched with helpful guidance joined older men and women with whom he had shared chariot racing, golf, cards and talk of good books. Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and others undefined by traditional religions; Democrats, Republicans, liberals, conservatives, and independents; soldiers and sailors from World War II, Korean and Vietnam conflicts; Marines from Desert Storm -- all raised their eyes toward stars and stripes with respect.
We were one, pulled together by the flag-bearers -- young Civil Air Patrol members; a fellow pilot honoring a man who served 20 years in the Air Force; and American Legion members who held banners from all branches of the U.S. military.
Differences receded into recognition of something bigger than questions about mandatory statement of a Pledge of Allegiance or inclusion of the word God in that pledge. Today, on Veterans Day, that "something bigger" joins us, red states, blue states; whites, blacks, yellows, reds, tans, and in-betweens, to honor men and women of our United States armed services and to recall wars in which they stepped forward on our behalf.
When first set aside as a time of remembrance, Nov. 11 recognized the end of fighting in World War I. Germany, in 1918, accepted the Armistice, four years after two pistol shots in Sarajevo downed the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary. Armistice Day became a federal holiday in 1938, the year that the man whose funeral I attended was born.
During 65 years that followed, American troops have served on lands around a smaller and smaller world. World War II's fighting in more than 50 countries ended in victory for allied forces in 1945, three years, eight months, and 22 days after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. In 1953, the United States, along with 15 other member-countries who sent troops in defense of South Korea at the behest of a recently formed United Nations, signed a truce. The next year, Congress changed Armistice Day to Veterans Day.
During the 1960s and its Age of Aquarius, Veterans Day receded into the calendar with less and less observance. Young President Kennedy opened the doors of Camelot, but those who were born in the year of his inauguration witnessed, during their childhood, assassinations of three American heroes. Violence set in. Fighting in Vietnam, never a declared war, split our country, spotlighting divisions and differences. Peace-loving hippies became anti-war protesters. Veterans received no honor, and those who fought returned home to a country that looked with disgust upon the November holiday. Yellow ribbons acknowledged hostages held in Iran, but the red, white and blue was rarely unfurled.
As the 21st century approached its finale, with transistors and microchips connecting the world through a new Internet, flags returned to America's streets. While U.S. troops led a coalition that halted an aggressive thrust in the Persian Gulf, Americans watched on CNN with renewed pride. That brief struggle, however, proved to be only a preliminary to what lie ahead.
On Sept. 11, 2001, a new kind of war in a new century reminded us that we could no longer take for granted those who defend our shores.
We sideliners have benefited from their presence beyond any measure of appreciation. Whether or not we approve of the reasons they were sent, we stand, united, to honor them all, on Veterans Day, 2003.