From October 13, 2000 to October 25, 2005, I served as my beloved Aunt Engie’s advocate and attorney-in-fact. She was my mother’s sister and she suffered from senile dementia. She lived in a nursing home less than two miles from my home, and I’d visit her frequently to sit with her, pray for her, sing hymns with her, eat with her and sometimes, just to be with her.
Walking out of the nursing home one afternoon, the activity director reminded me that Veteran’s Day was close at hand, and they were planning a special celebration for the Veterans at the home. Aunt Engie and my mother had both served in the armed forces in WW2.
Later that day, I called my mother and asked about Engie’s contributions to the war. A lieutenant in the WAVES during WWII, my mother was happy to talk about the war years.
“When we enlisted, we signed up for the duration plus six months,” she told me. “We didn’t know how or when or even if the war would end. Hitler looked unstoppable. There was talk that the war could go on for years and years. The media called us ‘the lost generation.’ We were an entire generation that missed the years of our youth. That time of our life was lost to those war years.”
On Veteran’s Day, I arrived just as the ceremony was beginning. The activity director was standing in a corner of the dining area, talking into a hand-held mike wired through a kid’s karaoke machine. About 25 men and two women (all in wheelchairs) formed a large half circle around the room. About 40 family members made up the audience.
My eyes searched for Auntie. I found her near the far end of the circle and she was dressed in fresh clothes. Some kind soul had draped a strand of faux pearls around her neck and dusted her lily-white cheeks with a touch of rouge.
A moment later, the color guard appeared. Six old men from the local VFW, dressed in full military regalia, marched purposefully into the room. The moment the flag bearer came into view, there was a shuffling sound as many of the wheelchair-bound men pushed on their armrests and struggled to rise to their feet. The great majority of the men – whether upright or seated – proudly saluted the American flag. The sight of these old men forcing themselves to their feet – out of respect for their flag – brought tears to my eyes.
Speaking slowly, the speaker told a little bit about each person, their rank, special commendations and what they did in the war. I heard descriptions of people who bore little resemblance to the frail, elderly men before me. Some were decorated war heroes who had been awarded medals like the purple heart, the bronze star and more. Some had been POW’s in German and Japanese camps. Some had been on the front lines of the world’s worst war, ready to lay down their life for the fellow man. And, I kept remembering, they went into this hellish war for the duration, plus six months.
After each narrative, the color guard marched toward the individual being described and standing ramrod straight, the lead man crisply saluted the honored veteran and then bowed slightly, and presented each veteran with a tiny cloth flag and one red rose.
Some of the veterans sat up straighter in their wheelchairs and saluted back. Some just smiled. Many of these old men wiped a tear from their eyes as they clasped the tiny flag in their beautiful old hands.
When they came to Auntie, the speaker told the group that she was a Sergeant in the W.A.C. and a truck mechanic and driver for the big transports. When the color guard presented her with a rose and a flag, she smiled from ear to ear.
When the ceremony was over, the speaker passed out music sheets and then sat down at the piano and played “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
I looked around the room at these honorable and selfless veterans and I felt deeply humbled. And I had a new understanding of the true meaning of Veteran’s Day.