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The untold stories of our veterans

Veterans Day this year has the distinction of an unusual date: 11/11/11. Regardless, this Veterans Day will be like most others. There will be speeches, parades and barbecues. People from every generation will line streets to watch bands playing patriotic music and honor guards carrying flags. Floats will be decked out in red, white and blue, and vintage cars will carry notables. Like all Veterans Days, it is an opportunity to thank those who at one time raised their hand, took an oath and signed a blank check to pay whatever was required to assure our way of life, our liberties and our freedoms.

I recently attended a gathering of veterans to honor one of our own. Retired Col. Gerald Turley of the U.S. Marine Corps saw combat in the Vietnam War as few did. In what became known as the 1972 Easter Offensive, tens of thousands of well-equipped North Vietnamese Army regulars poured across the demilitarized zone separating North and South Vietnam. With less than a week in his new command, Turley directed U.S. ground, air and naval fire in support of South Vietnam’s embattled Marine and Army units stationed along the zone. It is really a remarkable story of courage and leadership.

It was also a remarkable evening. Eighteen Marine, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard and Army veterans of four wars shared their stories. The gathering could be seen by those passing nearby; I’m sure it looked like some senior citizens gathering. Only one could have been as young as in his 50s — the rest of us in our 60s, 70s and 80s. These passersby had no way to know and appreciate the living history represented at that table. Hands now wrinkled had once held the weapons that guarded America. Civilian shoes now replaced combat boots on feet that patrolled enemy-infested terrain. Glasses and hearing aids now masked the keen senses that stood vigilant against those who threatened our beloved America. Even so, doddery had no place at this gathering.

There are certain memories of military service that only a veteran can appreciate. The sound of a bugle calling reveille; the smell of the mess tent on a cold morning; the touch of a fellow soldier hugging you upon a successful mission; the sight of our country’s flag waving; the satisfying taste of field rations replacing lost calories. The list goes on and is different for each branch and each veteran, but the warp and waft of these memories form a sublime textile that cloaks the veteran's mind’s eye.

Even the bad memories often have a silver lining. I have patrolled the demilitarized zone dividing North and South Korea in the middle of winter. A more miserable experience I have not had. No matter how bad things may have gotten since then, I’ve been able to say to myself, “At least I’m not patrolling the Korean DMZ when it’s 30 degrees below zero.” I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of that thought over the last 40 years.

There are millions of such stories — most untold and understandably unacknowledged. Even though those stories may not be known, we do know that U.S. military veterans deserve our thanks and our appreciation. Nov. 11 is the day we single out for this. Attend that parade, listen to that speech, enjoy that barbecue, but be on the lookout for the veteran. Your thanks and words of appreciation will mean a lot.

Lickness, a resident of San Diego and general counsel for Golden Eagle Insurance, served in the infantry in the Vietnam War.

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