Tuesday is Veterans Day, and in a small San Antonio ceremony held Monday, that meant listening to Dominique Eatmon, an East Central High School Choir soloist and her fellow choir members sing "God Bless America."
You can listen, too, if you don't mind my less-than-professional iPhone video. So many people casually dump on our inner city schools, so few get to experience what I experienced at The Ecumenical Center for Education, Health and Counseling, "where hearts and minds find help," in the ever-expanding South Texas Medical Center.
"Beyond Barriers" was the program title for the Center's Veterans Day celebration, a fitting title given that thousands of the 2.6 million service men and women who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan came here to recover from life-threatening wounds at Brooke Army Medical Center on Joint Base San Antonio Fort Sam Houston, "home of military medicine."
Many of the Wounded Warriors suffered severe burns or the loss of limbs and came here for medical treatment, rehabilitation and reintroduction back into society. These young men and women, some walking on two prosthetics, some with heavily scarred and faces, are part of the San Antonio community. Their path back to civilian life poses challenges far beyond what most of us face in our lives.
So I hope you do listen and feel the stir of patriotism if only for three minutes. Veterans Day should be more than a day off work or a retail sale. The real meaning of the day is honoring those who have served with honor.
For many, the post-9/11 Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are an out-of-sight, out-of-mind proposition now, although U.S. servicemen and women are still engaged in military activities in both countries. You don't have to support those wars to pause for a few minutes Tuesday in appreciation of the men and women who have served in the U.S. armed forces. Veterans Day isn't about geopolitics or policy debates. It's about individuals and service to country.
It's especially important to meditate for a few minutes in our busy, overscheduled lives on the American men and women who have given their lives for the country, and for their families who live with that sacrifice every day of their lives.
This article isn't meant as a guilt trip aimed at those of us who did not serve. I am proud of my opposition to the Vietnam War and the Conscientious Objector status I earned from my Pennsylvania draft board, no small feat at the time. But I have many friends who did serve, and I honor their decision as much as my own. My life as a reporter brought me into close contact with the U.S. military in various places around the globe, and I've always appreciated the value of service. I wish there hadn't been a Vietnam War. A few years in the military would have done me a lot of good.
Monday's ceremony began with a prayer from the Rev. Dr. Louis Zbinden, who served as Pastor of First Presbyterian Church downtown for 25 years until his retirement in 2003.
U.S. Army SFC Luke I. Jefferson, Trumpet Player with the 323d Army Band, "Fort Sam's Own," was on hand as the Ceremonial Bugler to play First Call, followed by the entry of the East Central HS Honor Guard and the presentation of several generations of veterans representing all four service branches. The John Marshall High School Honor Guard did the Presentation of the Colors and then the John Marshall HS Choir sang the National Anthem.
A veteran from my generation, (ret.) U.S. Air Force Col. Tom McNish, briefly shared his story of spending 6 1/2 years as a prisoner of war in a Viet Cong prison camp.
"The veterans here today, I feel so strongly about," McNish said, acknowledging the veterans in the front row. "But I think the most important people in the room are the young people. You are the future. Thank you for your music and thank you for coming here on this morning dedicated to our veterans."
McNish thanked everyone in the room, even if they had not served.
"The one thing that joins us together is our love of country," he said. "As to the vets, I can't thank you enough for what you've done. Every one of you wrote a blank check to this country and if it has been cashed, it would have meant you had given your life for country. Thank God those of us here were not called to do so, but we all have friends we have lost."
(Ret.) U.S. Air Force First Sgt. Brian Posten suffered a career-ending brain injury in Balad, Iraq after 23 years of service when a supply pallet in a Chinook helicopter broke loose and crashed down on his head. Posten found new meaning in life after recovery and difficult transition to civilian work when he landed a job teaching exiting service men and women about personal finance to help ease their return to civilian life.
"Even in Military City USA transition is not an easy thing," Posten said. "I think on average a veteran jumps from three to five jobs before they settle into the job they will keep."
Then it was the East Central Choir's turn to sing "God Bless America" as the audience stood and sang along. Afterwards, from outside the building came the first mournful notes of SFC Jefferson playing Taps, customarily heard as the day's last call and at the end of military funerals.
I was told later that SFC Jefferson has been promoted and this was his last call to play at a Veterans Day ceremony. As those present stood and listened, a single empty chair in the Ecumenical Center's front row held a long-stemmed red rose, representing those who gave their lives for country.
Editor's Note: Monday's program was sponsored by KLRN-TV and Red McCombs Toyota. Lunch was donated by the Omni Hotel, where staff will welcome servicemen and women without family or friends for complimentary Thanksgiving Day dinner. KLRN will air a special program, "Veterans Voices-Telling: San Antonio," Tuesday, 8 p.m. that offers the personal accounts of veterans.