"Chicano writers from El Paso are the most progressive, open-minded, far-reaching, and inclusive writers of them all."

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Sunday, November 13, 2011

Honoring America's Veterans By Felipe de Ortego y Gasca

American soldiers of the 353rd Infantry near a church at Stenay, Meus in France. Foto taken on November 11, 1918, two minutes before the armistice ending World War I went into effect. --Department of Veterans Affairs.


Previous version titled “Veteran’s Day: Pain and Promise” appeared in Newspaper Tree, November 10, 2008; Silver City Daily Press, November 11, 2008; La Prensa, San Antonio, Texas, November 11, 2007. Posted on Somos en Escritos: Latino Literary Online Magazine.

By Felipe de Ortego y Gasca

Since the founding of the nation, some 48 million men and women have served in the U.S. military. More than half are alive today. A small number of World War II veterans are still with us, though they are dying at the rate of about 1,000 a day.

In the United States there are two days that honor American veterans: one is Memorial Day — the last Monday in May — and the other is Veteran’s Day —each year on November 11.

Some sources indicate that Memorial Day was officially proclaimed on May 5, 1868 by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic when, as decorations, flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery.

In May of 1966, President Lyndon Johnson officially declared Waterloo N.Y. as the official birthplace of Memorial Day. In December of 2000, Congress passed the “National Moment of Remembrance” resolution to remind Americans of the true meaning of Memorial Day.

Until 1968 when the Congress established the Uniform Holiday act and moved Memorial Day to the last Monday in May, the nation celebrated Decoration / Memorial Day on May 30th as a day of remembrance for Americans who died in battle.

On January 19, 1999, efforts were made to restore Memorial Day back to May 30th instead of “the last Monday in May,” the traditional day of observance of Decoration / Memorial Day. The efforts were unsuccessful. 
In the 20th century, the War of nations (World War I) ended on the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918 and the day was proclaimed as Armistice Day in remembrance of the end of World War I and is generally regarded as the end of “the war to end all wars.”
By Executive Order, in November 1919, President Wilson proclaimed November 11 as the first commemoration of Armistice Day. The day was later renamed Veterans Day to honor those who have served in any of the armed forces during war.

Each year on November 11, the nation celebrates that legacy and commemorates its contribution to the American character. In 2004 the U.S. Senate voted unanimously to name the city of Emporia, Kansas, as the official founding city of Veterans Day.

When World War II ended in August of 1945, I was 19 years old and a Sergeant in the Marine Corps. I had survived the vagaries of that grueling war and, putting my uniform aside, went out into the world to make my “fortune” with the 16 million men and women who served in that effort.

What that fortune would be, I had no idea. Thanks to the University of Pittsburgh (1948-1952) that fortune has turned out to be an academic career spanning almost six decades and a staggering production of published words. All this with only one year of high school and no GED.

What I knew at war’s end was that as a World War II veteran the promises of America strengthened my resolve to confront the challenges of the nation at mid-century. What I also knew was that as a veteran I was part of a legacy of military service stretching back to the foundations of the nation.


n Veterans Day, in particular, I think about the youth of our nation fighting in brutal climes like Afghanistan and Iraq. I think about Willie Bains, a companion of my youth who went off to the European Theater during World War II and never came back. We should have grown old together and reveled in conversations about our children and grandchildren.

On Veterans Day, especially, I think about the World War I veterans I used to see in my youth on the streets of San Antonio, Chicago, and Pittsburgh, hawking paper poppies (symbolic of Memorial Day) for donations.

Inspired by the poem “In Flanders Fields” (December 18, 1915) by Lt. Colonel John McCrae a Medical Doctor of the Canadian Army, Moina Michaels initiated the tradition of sporting poppies on Decoration/Memorial Day.

I remember how many veterans of World War I in my youth were without limbs, how many of them were blind, how many of them had grown old before their time, had given up on life and the promises of their country — all this after having given themselves to America.

Though they are less, today I see maimed and crippled veterans of World War II struggling to come to terms with the visions they still carry in their heads about that conflagration.

And now in our nation there are veterans of Viet Nam and subsequent battles waiting for the largesse of the nation to heal them of their wounds, to succor them in their time of need.

The nation has not served its veterans well, those who gave their full measure of devotion “to protect and defend.” This is not a panegyric to the nobility of war, for there is little nobility in the ravages of warfare. Memorial Day and Veterans Day should be a reminder to all of us that, despite our differences, regardless of color, religion, ethnicity, or gender, we should pay homage to our fellow Americans who have defended the ramparts of our democracy even though that democracy has at times disdained their service.

Memorial Day and Veterans Day are flitting moments in the enduring cycle of nation-building. We have not yet formed “a more perfect union.” Ronald Reagan’s shining city on the hill still awaits us while the blood of our children is spent today on campaigns that remind us of Greek and Roman excursions into foreign lands in pursuit of empire.

And what of the veterans of those campaigns? Those men and women who have sacrificed (and are sacrificing) so much in pursuit of an imperious chimera whose flight takes (has taken) us into perilous regions. What of their sacrifices? All the sacrifices of our veterans over the life of our nation create a collectivity of patriotism dedicated to the ideals of the nation rather than to the vagaries of its politics. For that reason we should honor our live and fallen veterans on Memorial Day and Veterans Day.

IN FLANDERS FIELDS the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
--John McCrae

Felipe de Ortego y Gasca is Scholar in Residence, Chair, Department of Chicana/Chicano and Hemispheric Studies, Western New Mexico University; USMC, World War II, 1943-1946 (Platoon Sergeant); USAF, Korean and Viet Nam Conflicts, 1952-1962 (Active Duty: Captain; Major, USAFR)

Copyright © 2009 by the author. All rights reserved.

1 comment:

Emma said...

Great Start! I am quite enjoyed.