Like most World War II veterans, my dad didn’t have much to say about his time in the service.
“What did you do in the war, Dad?” “What I was told” “What places did you visit?” “Wherever the ship went, I was there”… and so forth.
I was able to piece together that he joined the Navy as soon as he was able in 1943 and served on the USS Atlanta for three years in the South Pacific. It was basically a support and supply vessel. He wasn’t involved in the major battles and had no major medals. He was just doing a job he was supposed to do. He didn’t want any big fuss or displays for what he had done.
The one story he enjoyed telling was about his travels to and from port. He was raised on a farm on the west side of Bartow County and his ship was in Savannah. Since the government didn’t pay for travel and since his family had no way of getting him there, this is what he did when it was time to go (or return) to port.
They could make him a bag lunch, load up the family and travel Highway 41, which was one of the few paved roads in the county. Then he would get his duffle bag, stand on the side of the road and hold out his thumb in hopes of catching a ride.
He stood about five-feet nine and weighed about 135 pounds and was at 17, literally, right of the farm. Naïve, inexperienced and wide-eyed, this youngster standing there in his uniform was putting his well being in the hands of strangers and the public. What we in the year 2013 might find hard to believe, is that he was in good hands.
He said, “I would stand there for a while sometimes because there weren’t many cars coming by. But there would hardly be a car or two pass that didn’t stop and offer a ride. ‘Where are you going?’ they’d say. They’d take me as far as they could. Some would even go 10 or 20 miles out of their way to get me to the next road. Almost all of them offered me food or wanted to give me something. A few would take me to a restaurant and some even made me go home with them and eat. Two or three times I even spent the night at strangers’ houses and they got up the next morning, fed me again, and took me down the road to my next stop. Some wrote down my name and address and wrote to me all through the war. Actually, I traveled the distance there and back about as fast as I could have driven and got plenty of free food along the way. It was amazing how they treated me like I was something special, like I was royalty.”
Yes, it was a different time during WWII and the country felt differently about those in service. But like my dad, I think of the thousands who have served as he did. Not everyone has a uniform full of medals, but they did a job that had to be done to support the country.
As we celebrate Veterans Day, we will see plenty of politicians getting their pictures made with veterans. However, the VA is underfunded and understaffed to the point that veterans usually have to wait six months for their benefits to start. Some 900,000 veterans and their families were cut from the food stamp rolls last week. With a defense budget of a trillion dollars, couldn’t we not build a few planes or ships and get them the benefits they deserve? The politicians who hug the veterans, then won’t vote to help them are like the drivers who waved at my dad, but wouldn’t give him a ride.
The point is two-fold. One, the people need to make sure that their elected officials treat the servicemen and veterans with the proper care, medical treatment and pay that they deserve. Secondly, the general public needs to realize that they have a role in helping the veterans, making them feel like they are something special … like they are royalty … and like they are in good hands with the public.