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.
“We were there to protect the freedoms of our country,” Guarnere said by phone from his home in South Philly. “That was our focus, the home front and our families. You have no idea what freedom means, until you lose it. That is what we thought about, that is what we fought for.”
His heroic actions, chronicled in the HBO series “Band of Brothers,” cost him his right leg and earned him the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts.
Guarnere has traveled to Iraq and met Petraeus (he calls the general “a very good man”) last year in Philadelphia. He doesn’t mince words about the nation he gave so much to defend: “Nobody gives two damns about the war today. All they talk about in Washington is health care.”
Last Sunday a group of American soldiers gathered in Baghdad at the site where, seven years earlier, Paul R. Smith, a young Army platoon sergeant from the 3rd Infantry Division, defended his small unit against overwhelming odds. As Smith’s relentless machine-gun fire broke the enemy attack, a bullet took his life.
Major General Tony Cucolo, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division and of all U.S. forces in northern Iraq, was among the group. “As I looked around the small gathering in a dusty, walled-in corner of Baghdad,” he said afterward, “I marveled at how far some of the soldiers had travelled that day for a ceremony that would last about 30 minutes.”
Elected officials could learn from the military, according to Bert Rockman, a political science professor at Purdue University.
“It would be nice if our political loonies took some lessons from how the military functions through teamwork, assimilation, cooperation and looking after one another,” he explains. “It’s not perfect, but it’s a model for how we can best function to reach outcomes vital to our collective future.”
We can never do enough for those who serve our country. They ask only for respect for what they do and their willingness to do it for the rest of us.
And they ask – as all American soldiers have, since 1775 – that their efforts not be forgotten.
In loving memory of U.S. Army Sergeant William J. Zito, 76th Infantry, Company G, World War II.