Today is 11.11.11. It is also Veteran’s Day.
For me the face of Veteran’s Day is always Pvt. Joseph A. Haymes, known to his comrades in arms as “Virginia” (his home state.) He was a sniper in General Patton’s Third Army, Yankee Division. As a sniper, he was often freelancing as Patton’s army made its record-setting march across France, going off on his own to spy out a situation or to attack a specific target.
Exploding shrapnel took a chunk of his leg on November 8, 1944, outside of the French village of Moyenvic. By the end of the day, any member of his unit who had not been wounded had been killed or taken prisoner. As a sniper, he would have been killed as soon as he was captured. He recovered and returned to the front but something was different. Before, he’d assumed he was never getting home again. Now it was a possibility and it made things seem all the more dangerous.
Fifty odd years after the war, he returned to France with members of the Yankee Division. Every village hailed them as heroes, throwing civic banquets in their honor. In fact, if you look up “Moyenvic” on Wikipedia, you’ll see a picture of the monument that was placed there in their honor.
In my mind, my father was the best kind of soldier. He took great pride in what he did… and yet had no taste for it. When they interviewed him about being a sniper, they asked if he could bring himself to aim directly at another man. And could he not grow to like it. He did both.
He knew that he was doing a job that had to be done. There was no question but that Hitler had to be stopped. He took pride in being a part of something so important, and took pride in doing it well. But he had no romance for war. He once wrote, “War is hard on men who are old enough to know better.” His was not the glib and easy patriotism of those who have never heard the bullets and seen the blood. His was the patriotism that is willing to do the hard things simply because they must be done.
He carries the war with him. He carries it in the crater of a scar that marks his leg. (One day recently he complained to me that his leg was giving him pain. “Did you hurt it?” I asked. “Yes, he said, “someone shot me.”) He also carries it with him in his stories – the ones he has shared and the ones he will never tell.
I know that he will appreciate being honored and remembered today. But I think I can safely say that he would be even more honored to live in a world where young men and women did not have to do such things. Let us honor our veterans not only with our thanks but also with our commitment to peacemaking.
Our peacemaking can begin on a small scale. It begins when we refuse to divide up into us versus them. It begins when we try to hear, really hear, someone who is different from us. It comes as we ask from our political leaders; yea, demand from our leaders not the easiest courses, the ones best suited for glib soundbites, but the wisest ones – not only for ourselves but for our children.
It may be unrealistic to envision a world without war. But it may be necessary that we try.