GETTYSBURG – South of Emmitsburg Road, along the Civil War battlefield here, 20 men gather around a monument to Latham’s Battery.
They toil at the simple memorial honoring the North Carolina artillery unit, cleaning cannons and resetting fallen rocks on a low stone wall. Most of the men are Civil War re-enactors and are wearing period uniforms.
“Colonel” Kevin Stone, one of the volunteers, says they gather to do this twice a year. “If we don’t do it,” he explains, “who will?”
With few exceptions in our history, we Americans have honored our soldiers, living and dead, past and present.
The nation is in its longest period of continual war now, although it faces a different kind of warfare and a different kind of enemy. The average American has not had to make significant sacrifices this time, unlike most previous wartime generations.
Jeff Brauer, an associate professor of history at Keystone College, thinks that fact actually has led to heightened patriotism. “Without a daily outlet for appreciation, there has been an increased migration to memorials such as Gettysburg, the World War II, Vietnam and Korean war memorials (in Washington), to show respect and gratitude for our current and past soldiers.”
The man responsible for managing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus, says he hopes his troops are honored today – and generations from now – as the selfless men and women they are.
“All those now in uniform raised their right hand long after the attacks of 9/11,” he said, from Poland where he was attending meetings. “Even those serving before then have re-enlisted or remained on active duty. They knew they'd be asked to deploy, and yet they have continued to serve, voluntarily.”
These men and women continue to raise their right hands even as they confront tough, often barbaric enemies, he says. “They perform the most challenging of missions in cultures different from our own.
“They have done magnificently, and they truly are the very best of our country.”
Retired Army staff sergeant “Wild” Bill Guarnere knows about challenging missions. At age 18 he made his first combat jump on D-Day, part of the Allied invasion of France during World War II.
A member of Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, Guarnere said the thought never crossed his mind then that what he was doing would be remembered generations later.