Steamboat Springs Soldier, sailor, marine and airman! Whether you have been home five days, five years or five decades, we welcome you, a veteran. We who have never been in the military service of our country cannot walk in your boots or step aboard your ship. The only part of your life we can try to imagine with any sense of reality is your return home.
When you came back, home and all it stood for had changed. Part of you will always be foreign to those who have not been in that other place. Some of you returned to parents who watched you leave childhood behind. Others came home to a sweetheart who thought about you every day while you were gone. A few of you were parents who missed months and years of your children’s lives. Most of you left as inexperienced youngsters whose absence at the Sunday dinner table represented more than visible emptiness.
Through the years of the 20th century, we have welcomed you home from wars.
Ninety-one years ago today, an armistice ended World War I. Three million of you had been drafted under the new Selective Service Act; 2 million more volunteered. Thousands served in the Red Cross. You returned aboard ships from across the Atlantic and traveled by trains to hometowns that awaited and embraced you.
In September 1945, World War II ended. You, who came home from Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia, heard bands playing and saw flags waving in streets of a grateful nation, united by victory against enemies who sought to defeat and occupy our country. You had left towns where most of the people you met each day knew your parents and grandparents, where you had little fear of those around you. You have learned to stand alert every minute to possible danger.
In July 1953, a cease-fire, without victory, ended a war that lasted a little more than three years. You came home from Korea to an economic upswing — new homes, new cars and television sets, and a seeming lack of concern about 50,000 Americans who had died. You could not forget the men who had bunked next to you during bitter-cold winters, or the prisoners of war who underwent inconceivable torture.
Sometimes, not to our credit, we have wavered in the warmth of our welcome.
You, the men and women who came home from the eight-year war in Vietnam, faced an animosity that spread across the country. Protests for civil rights, racial equality and peace turned into violent, ugly outbursts against war, authority and government. Your uniform brought sneers of contempt and much worse. Those who supported you were denigrated as “flag wavers.”
By the last decade of the 20th century, attitudes began changing. When two dozen nations allied with the United States to rid Kuwait of invading forces, you came home after less than a month. Desert Storm awakened admiration for the nation’s military, if not the reason for its activation.
Today, as our armed forces return from Operation Iraqi Freedom, those who oppose military action take their opposition to Congress and cast a respectful eye toward you who wear the uniform of our country.
Two walls represent the century now past — one built to imprison people, the other to honor those who died for their freedom-loving country. One wall was torn down; the other stands, 58,000 names engraved on black granite. We remember them, and today we honor you, their living comrades from all our wars. We cannot walk in your shoes, cannot feel your scars, but we can, in all sincerity, welcome you back home.
Harriet Freiberger is a freelance writer who has lived in the Elk River Valley since 1982.