Reflecting this year on the significance of Veterans Day from the vantage point of my sixties, I find it to be an unsettling experience, and not for the first time. I had the same experience during the sixties.
As those of you who read my columns regularly will recall, my son-in-law, an ordained rabbi born into a Navy family, is himself currently a Navy Lieutenant, completing a three-year tour of duty as the chaplain to a Marine Expeditionary Unit based in Okinawa, Japan. My wife and I have spent a good deal of time with him and our daughter recently, as she gave birth only this past August to a baby girl. No place in the world is too far to go for the birth of a grandchild or to lend support to a child, but if there were such a place, Okinawa, I dare say, would qualify. It is very, very far from New York in every way.
During my freshman year of college, in 1969, campuses around the country were the tumultuous ground zero for the anti-war movement. Even conservative Yeshiva University, where I did my undergraduate studies, was swept up in the protests, and I remember that the so-called nation-wide Moratorium of Spring, 1970 essentially cancelled out most of my classes and all of my final exams. As clearly as if it were yesterday, I can recall standing in Bryant Park with tens of thousands of students from across New York City, listening to Senator Eugene McCarthy speak against the war, and Judy Collins and Peter, Paul and Mary sing. It felt right, proper and good to be there as opposed to being in class. Class just didn’t seem as relevant as the protest was.
If you had told me then that, more than forty years later, my daughter would be living on a Marine base with my Navy Lieutenant son-in-law, and that I would burst with pride when I consider their service to this country, I would have said that you were delusional. It would have been inconceivable to me.
I have written previously in this space about “the sin of my generation,” and I understand how sadly wrong we were then more than I ever did before. We weren’t wrong about the war; it was a disaster, and tens of thousands of young lives were wasted. But we allowed our anger over a government that had nothing but contempt for us and what we intuitively knew to be wrong to spill over into scorn and derision for the men and women who were called to serve, and answered that call. All they did was put their lives on the line to answer the call of duty, and close to sixty thousand of them never came home. Many of those who did make it back were wounded physically and spiritually, some to this day.
Those of us who were not drafted and did not enlist had no qualms of conscience, and to this day I don’t regret not wanting to serve. Time has vindicated our feelings about the war, and the government that got us into it. But the arrogance of our attitude towards the men and women who did serve was a terrible and shameful mistake. There is no excuse for it, even after all these years.
In that context, and with my son-in-law and daughter now serving active duty, Veterans Day has become a painful reminder of what was, in retrospect, an enormously complicated and difficult time in this country. The anti-war movement of the sixties and seventies reflected a country coming apart at the seams, but in no way did those who served deserve what they got from so many of us, particularly when they came home. Instead of being greeted with open arms and gratitude for their service, as today’s returning veterans are, they were largely abandoned, willfully and knowingly, by far too many Americans.
I was privileged earlier this week to hear an address by the Vice-Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Michele Howard, delivered at the Jewish Theological Seminary in observance of Veterans Day. With quiet earnestness but an obvious steely resolve, the Admiral spoke of the honor of duty and public service, and the great sacrifice that military service requires of young men and women and their families.
If I learned one thing from the time I spent on that Marine base in Okinawa with my children, it was that those who serve this country– and today, they are all volunteers, as opposed to being drafted, like so many of my generation were– do so with honor and dignity, and a powerful sense of the blessing that is America. Both they and their families willingly forgo the comforts of home, friends and all that is familiar to them to be a part of defending America at this terribly threatening time. It was humbling, incredibly humbling, to be in their company. I have the greatest of respect for them all, and I pray for their safety.
I guess it’s not amazing that, just about forty or so years later, my perspective on my college years has changed so dramatically. Life will do that; it’s called growing up. But my relatively newfound perspective will not quickly erase the sadness I feel at the way so many of my generation, and of America as a whole, failed the veterans who fought in Vietnam. September 11 has, by the sheer scope of its horror, made us all immeasurably more sensitive to those who serve in the military. It is gratifying that we have gotten to this point. But still … how sad at what it took to get us there.
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.