“War makes strange giant creatures out of the little routine men who inhabit the Earth.”
Ernie Pyle, WWII correspondent
Some veterans bear visible signs of their service: a missing limb, a jagged scar, a look in the eye. Others may carry the evidence inside them: a pin holding a bone together, a piece of shrapnel in the leg — or perhaps another sort of inner steel, the soul’s alloy forged in the refinery of adversity.
Except in parades, however, the men and women who have kept America safe wear no badge or emblem. You can’t tell a vet just by looking.
What is a vet?
He is the cop on the beat who spent six months in Saudi Arabia sweating two gallons a day making sure the armored personnel carriers didn’t run out of fuel.
He is the Nebraska farmer who worries every year that this time, the bank really will foreclose.
He is the barroom loudmouth, dumber than five wooden planks, whose overgrown frat-boy behavior is outweighed a hundred times in the cosmic scales by four hours of exquisite bravery near the 39th Parallel.
She — or he — is the nurse who fought against futility and went to sleep sobbing every night for two solid years in Da Nang.
He is the POW who went away one person and came back another or didn’t come back at all.
He is the Quantico drill instructor who never has seen combat — but who has saved countless lives by turning slouchy no-’counts into soldiers, and teaching them to watch each others’ backs.
He is the parade-riding legionnaire who pins on his ribbons and medals with a prosthetic hand.
He is the career quartermaster who watches the ribbons and medals pass him by.
He is the anonymous hero in the Tomb of the Unknowns, whose presence at Arlington National Cemetery must forever preserve the memory of all the other anonymous heroes whose valor died unrecognized with them on the battlefield or in the ocean’s sunless deep.
He is the old guy bagging groceries at the supermarket — palsied now and aggravatingly slow — who helped liberate a Nazi death camp, and who wishes all day long his wife were still alive to hold him when the nightmares come.
He is an ordinary and yet an extraordinary human being — a person who offered some of his life’s most vital years in the service of his country, and who sacrificed his ambitions so others would not have to sacrifice theirs.
He is a soldier and a savior and a sword against the darkness, and he is nothing more than the finest, greatest testimony on behalf of the finest, greatest nation ever known.
Published by Richmond Times-Dispatch Nov 11, 2005. This editorial, written by Anthony Barton Hinkle, first appeared in 1995.