Grateful for their service

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By David Whitlock

The black and white picture of the B-24 on the front of the time-worn postcard caught my attention. I flipped it over to find my dad’s barely legible handwriting, smeared as it was by an aged water stain. It was postmarked, Dec. 12, 1944, from San Marcos Army Air Field, San Marcos, Texas.

“Dear Folks,” it began — “folks” being the word Dad used to address his parents — “boy, am I tired! We had a night/day mission last night…” He was in training as a navigator for the Air Force during WWII.
Dad was only 20 then, younger than my two sons. I’ve seen his military pictures: full face, rosy cheeks, bright eyes, chest thrust back, proud to be wearing his USAF uniform, anxious to serve his country, more anxious to survive and put his arms around my mom.
I was not even a glint in his eye then.
And his “folks,” my grandparents, were more than 10 years younger than me the day I read that postcard just last week as I helped Mom and Dad move out of their home town of 58 years, the town they returned to after WWII and the Korean War, the place they chose to settle, raise a family, and fulfill their version of the American Dream.
Tom Brokaw appropriately coined the phrase, ‘The Greatest Generation,” to describe the men and women who came out of the Depression, won the great victories of WWII, and made the sacrifices to build their world, the fruits of which we enjoy today.
Not all the letters in Brokaw’s book, The Greatest Generation Speaks (1999), are from people on the front lines. Some are from those who did not see action, but were nonetheless willing to serve wherever they were asked.
Roger Newburger was one such man. He was with the Army Corps of Engineers on Oahu and never made it to the front.
“I would have tried to do whatever I was told to do, but I think the guys would have been safer without me.”
Years later, after seeing the film, Saving Private Ryan, Newburger went to his car and wept for 30 minutes, so affected was he “because of what the real warriors went through.”
My dad was a Roger Newburger — willing to serve wherever he was asked, but grateful he didn’t have to face the enemy eye to eye. Thankfully, WWII came to a close before he was deployed, and he served as a dentist in a medical facility in Seoul, South Korea, during the Korean War.
My neighbor and childhood friend, Kim Parrish, had a picture of his dad, whom I respectfully addressed as Big Jim, in his WWII army uniform. Big Jim served in active combat. Stone-faced in that picture, he stared intently straight ahead, as if he knew danger was imminent. And it was. I admired him immensely and begged him to tell me war stories. He refused, and I was too young to understand why.
Even though Dad was not in combat, I was no less proud of him and appreciative of others like him who were willing to go to the front, even if they never had to.
So, this Independence Day I shall not only celebrate freedom, but remember and reflect on the sacrifices of those who served wherever they were asked — those of the Greatest Generation as well as the others — generations of people who have secured for me the freedom to enjoy a day  of celebration.
And I shall be sad, yet grateful, for those who didn’t make it home to embrace their spouse and hold their children and pursue their dreams.
As I walk with Dad down the hall of the retirement center which is his and Mom’s new home, he grasps me tightly by the arm to steady himself. His is now a different kind of tired than the one he wrote about as the 20-year-old navigator in training.
And as we walk, we pass two elderly women chatting.
“You say you have a brother who is buried in the country?” the one shouts so her companion can hear the question.
“Yes, yes, I do,” her friend responds with like volume. “He went to the war years ago…but he made it back.”
I’m glad he did.
And for others like him.
Especially the one who holds my arm as I walk him to his room, so he can finally rest.

E-mail David B.Whitlock, Ph.D., at drdavid@davidbwhitlock.com or visit his website, www.davidbwhitlock.com.