I never served in the military.
Like most boys coming out of high school, it probably would have done me some good – but my generation was weaned in the turbulent 1960s on protests and riots and anti-war songs, and the U.S. military wasn’t respected the way it is now. I had very few classmates who were eager to jump into a uniform and head for Vietnam.
The draft ended the year I turned 18. I went to college, graduated, went to work, got married and started a family – enjoying a freedom given to me by God, but secured for me by the sacrifices of veterans.
Through the years as a journalist, I’ve gotten to know quite a few of those veterans and been privileged to tell their stories.
I interviewed a Navy veteran who served in both World Wars and was the ship’s doctor for the legendary Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, who commanded the U.S. fleet in the Pacific during World War II. Dr. Marquette was still a practicing physician at 91, as sharp as a tack, when I talked to him.
I got to do stories on a man who was aboard a ship in Pearl Harbor when it was bombed, and several who splashed ashore at Normandy. J.B. Stokes, who parachuted into France the night of D-Day, became a dear friend, and I shared many conversations with Ray McClellan, a retired Marine who served in Korea at the “Frozen Chosin.”
At my first newspaper job, I got to know Roy Benavidez – one of the most humble, down-to-earth guys you’d ever want to meet. President Reagan broke down in tears while reading his Medal of Honor citation.
One of my bosses, James Roberts, was a prisoner-of-war in Germany. He traded his Andrews High School senior ring for a few spoonfuls of peach juice that broke his fever and saved his life.
My Uncle Mac McKeen was an engineer at Normandy, cutting up those “hedgehog” barricades the Germans had put on the beach and mounting them on the front of tanks to bust through the hedgerows of rural France. Both of my dad’s brothers served in World War II, and both of my mom’s as well.
The uncle I’m named after, Robert Mitchell, was a pilot who died of injuries he suffered when his bomber got shot up and crash-landed in France.
My dad turned 20 about two weeks before Pearl Harbor was attacked. Several months later, he joined the Army Air Corps – forerunner of the Air Force. He learned Morse code and radio technology in Chicago, and spent his war in North Africa, in places like Marrakech, Rabat and Dakar, guiding U.S. bombers across the Atlantic from Brazil and on to England.
He gave his country three years of his young life and budding baseball career, and if he begrudged a minute he never let on. To him, it was a great adventure – a privilege to participate in something so big, as an entire country pulled together and changed the course of world history.
I can’t begin to itemize what I’ve learned from my dad, whose character was perfectly revealed in the cheerful, positive way he served. He learned all he could, did his best, enjoyed what was enjoyable and endured the rest. He made lasting friendships and mastered skills that would help him the rest of his life.
He’s never been one to put on the old uniform and march in veterans’ parades. He moved on and didn’t care whether anyone knew he had served or not. It was no big deal to him – everyone did their part, and he just did his.
Most of what I know, I learned from him. But there are a few things all of us can learn from veterans.
Discipline – the value of sucking it up and doing what you have to do, then doing more. Most of us have far deeper reserves than we realize. Military service tends to draw that out.
Teamwork – having each other’s backs and fighting for and beside each other. Making each other better and not caring who gets the credit.
Patriotism – a love of this country, freedom and opportunity in a world filled with dishonest tyrants who rob the people they’re called to lead.
Honor – defending those who can’t defend themselves and speaking for those who can’t speak for themselves. Might does not make right, but when you are right, having the might to back it up is an extraordinarily powerful thing.
Commitment – the belief that there are sacred promises we should absolutely, unfailingly keep.
A lot of people throw the word “hero” around these days. The real heroes would never refer to themselves that way – in fact, that’s how you can spot them.
We honor our veterans in many ways, on Veterans Day and every day. One way, if you know one, is to simply tell him or her thank you.
But by far the greatest way is to learn what they have to teach us and use our freedom to live lives worthy of their sacrifice.
Bob Buckel is editorial director for the Messenger.