On Veteran's Day

By Will Baker

Veteran’s Day is right around the corner, so my thoughts have turned towards those men and women who have served our country. As we live out our lives, it is sometimes very easy to forget that, were it not for these dedicated folks, our realities might be very different than they are today. For the most part we are a society that enjoys relative comfort. We are blessed with many freedoms which, it seems to me, we oftentimes take for granted.

History tells us that our nation’s earliest veterans helped to carve out our country from the colonial patchwork that was eighteen-century North America. Our freedom, our very liberty had to be secured by the blood of our forefathers. And the debt that we owe to the veterans does not end there. No, our liberty has been maintained to this very day through the force of arms. Each generation has offered up it’s own, to act as the safe-keepers of our precious liberty, and in many cases they have been martyred in the process.

Our nation’s military is an interesting amalgam of professional and citizen soldiery. It is true that our country boasts a professionally trained, world class officer corps. Yet the fact remains, as demonstrated by history, that in the event that our nation’s survival is threatened, the lion’s share of those called upon to defend our country would be common men and women. Called from the schools and the factories, from the farmlands, the cities and the heartland to take up arms in the defense of our beloved homeland. And history has shown that they would respond to this call.

As I write, I am reminded of a story. It is over fifty years old, but it still has relevance for me today. It is about a young high school boy, who lived in the country north of New York City. His mother passed away when he was nine or ten and his father struggled to provide for him and his older brother. The two boys lived in a boarding house run by a kindly old couple who loved the two boys very much, and treated them as if they were their own. As the boys entered high school the rumblings of war from half way around the world could be heard in their little village. I am sure that names like Neville Chamberlain and Adolph Hitler were discussed around their modest dinner table, as well as terms such as appeasement, re-armament, partitioning and isolationism.

As these boys continued through high school, despite their nation’s best efforts at remaining neutral in the conflict, their country was attacked by a foreign power from the other side of the globe and war was declared. I can imagine this little family listening to President Roosevelt’s speech on the radio and then watching as the older boys in the village went off to war. I can hear the discussions that the brothers must have had late at night, as they lie awake in bed, and how the kindly old couple must have worried so about them. Before the older brother graduated from high school, I am sure that some of the boys from their village that had gone off to war came back wounded… or worse. Their country wasn’t doing very well. Their navy was all but destroyed, and their army and its allies suffered humiliating defeats. Free country after free country fell; it was a very dark hour.

The oldest brother graduated from high school and enlisted in the army. Shortly thereafter he found himself on a transport ship bound for Africa. It was a perilous journey. The battle for the African continent did not go well. Day after day his army and its allies gave ground. Things looked hopeless. The younger brother remained at home to finish his high school career. He was editor of his yearbook, and he had a sweetheart. He was a popular boy with high hopes for the future. Graduation time came, and he too enlisted in the army. During his military training it became clear that he was an exceptional marksman. As I write I can still see a picture of him in uniform with a long chain of marksmanship medals dangling down his uniform’s tunic. He looked young, but very serious. And there was a bittersweet aspect to his expression that haunts me to this day.

The tide was slowly turning. The allies held in North Africa at Alemein, and at Stalingrad in Russia, and a savage aerial attack on Great Britain was repulsed. The navy was rebuilt and the re-conquest of the pacific islands had begun. Once Africa was secured, the ally strategy was to keep the pressure up on the "Russian Front" while attempting invasions of Italy and then France. The older brother found himself near death in a hospital in England, recuperating from a bout with malaria, and the younger boy found himself on a landing craft bound for a beach near Anzio, Italy. It was there, sometime during the days following the storming of the beaches at Anzio that this young man was killed in action, defending his country very far from home. He was a sniper, so the odds are that he died alone. The young man’s name was Robert Baker, and he was my uncle.

And through the years there have been many Robert Bakers. Folks who, like my uncle, gave the "last full measure" of which Abraham Lincoln spoke, so that we all might live in freedom and peace. We are surrounded by the memories of those fallen in battle. Almost every family could tell a tale like this. And then there are the veterans who walk among us; looking just like you and me. It seems to me that they all deserve our thanks and gratitude. Whether they fought on the line, or worked in a supply depot is irrelevant. So, thank you Uncle Bob, and all of your comrades in arms, both living and dead. I will not forget your gift to us, nor will I squander it.

 (Essay Collection)