Monday, November 13, 2006

Veterans' Day...

The thing about Veterans' Day is that it's a holiday that is overlooked a lot of the time. Sure people have little ceremonies and honor the men and women who fight for our freedom, but it isn't a holiday that is greeted to very much fanfare. Heck, most people thought it was on Friday this year because the courthouse was closed. Turns out it was on Saturday.

However, on Friday I went to visit a veteran that we were going to do a feature story on in the paper. My editor gave the story to our high school intern which is kind of a possible double-edged sword, but I'm sure she'll do fine with it.

I say it is a double-edged sword simply because she doesn't have much experience with these types of stories because when we started to speak to Mr. Smith our story jumped up a notch.

See, Mr. Smith saw the first flag raised on the hilltop at Iwo Jima. The famous picture of the men planting the flag is actually of the second flag they planted, but he saw the first one.

The obvious reason that we decided to do the story was from all of the hype surrounding the new Clint Eastwood film "Flags of Our Fathers." And Mr. Smith adores our flag. He has 102 displayed in his yard and in the guest room where we did the interview there were flags everywhere.

I would say that Mr. Smith has a good reason to love our flag.

His mother had to sign his enlistment papers in 1942 for him to join the Marines at age 17. From there he fought on Iwo Jima and helped the U. S. take four other islands in the South Pacific in World War II. From there he left the Marines and joined the army. And in his words, as soon as he joined the Army, "They put me in charge." Back then Marines were held in very high regard and most of them that joined the Army trained soldiers.

He likely helped train soldiers for the Korean War and then fought in the Vietnam War where he would volunteer to take the place of soliders headed out into the jungle on patrols or missions. He said that if he knew that a man had 3 or 4 kids back home he would take their place instead. The ironic part about that was he had 5 kids back home.

Sitting there listening as he spoke about Iwo Jima and Vietnam we couldn't help but notice such a different tone he spoke with. Granted they were two very different wars, but when he would get two words into a sentence about combat at Iwo Jima he would instantly get choked up, but would almost joke about all of the death he saw and was apart of in Vietnam. I guess with Vietnam they just somehow coped with it that way. It probably helped them get through life thinking about it that way.

He openly talked about his time on Iwo Jima which lasted something like 25 days. The boats that dropped them off on the beach actually couldn't make it to the beach because of a reef. So they had to wade in chest high water to the beach where Japanese machine guns would spray the water with bullets killing many of the soldiers before they could reach the beach.

Then when they finally made landfall there were short 3 to 4 foot solid fences that were built out of banana logs they had to negotiate to advance forward. Of course these too were covered by the Japanese as well. The only way they would get over the fence without being shot or killed was to send up a troop of flame throwers. The flame throwers would open up 35 to 40 feet of fire streams and and infantry behind them would shoot through the flames and jump the fence when the flame throwers stopped. Hoping everything on the other side was clear.

That was just to get onto the island and he never got a scratch. In Vietnam he was nothing short of a trained killer for the most part. I know that almost disrespectful to say, but that's what he did and he was damn good at it. He got a bronze star for organizing 32 men to take out 60 VC and their vehicles.

Few soldiers from the WWII and Vietnam era ever talk openly about what they did and saw, but at age 83, or 84 depending on which branch of the military you ask, he realizes the significance of what he did for his country and I suppose he tells those stories so that people won't take for granted that what they see on TV from Iraq as just "the news."

As I said, most veterans never talk about their experiences during battle, but as far as I'm concerned few others deserve the kind of respect most of them shy away from.

When an 80 year-old stroke victim says he's ready to go back if they need him, there aren't words to describe the respect I have for that man.

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