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Is Veteran's Day as popular now as in yesteryears?

by Avis Townsend Wednesday, Nov. 12, 2003 at 7:52 PM

About two weeks after he died, his clothing and personal effects were shipped home in a large cardboard box. His watch was shattered, and stopped permanently at 11:20. We figured that's when he was shot. The bear claw he'd worn in a necklace around his neck was covered with blood, as was some of his clothing. They sent the things home with his blood still on them, and Joanne and I hid them before his parents could see.

Veteran's Day always bums me out. But it wasn't always that way. As a child, my father taught me to honor Veteran's Day and the memory of all the soldiers who fell fighting for our freedom. As he and his younger brother fought in World War II, and his older brother in World War I, they came home with a sense of honor and dignity, and a respect for this country and the freedoms we have. In 1950 my cousin Leonard came home from the Korean War, getting married just hours after getting off the plane. I was three and remember the wedding as if I was thirty.

It was another reason to celebrate, with so many men in the family successfully making it through another war.

Because of this, I decided to enlist in the Army when I was 18. I took the test to get in, getting the highest mark of any woman ever taking the test, and was signed up to take a journalism class while I was in there. I planned to come out in four years as a photojournalist, and life would be wonderful.

As I waited for a space to open in the field I'd signed up for, my cousin was killed in Vietnam. Suddenly the glory and glamour of the Army began to fade, and the events following made me realize I wanted no part of this life. Thank heavens I'd never signed the final papers.

Gary Lambert had the dubious distinction of being the first soldier from Lockport killed in Vietnam. He died January 29, 1966, after being lost for a while because he was in a hospital suffering from malaria. There was no glory or glamour involved in his death. He was killed by one of his own men, another 19-year-old scared shitless, who shot at Gary thinking he was the enemy. It happens. It's happening now.

When Gary died, the telegram arrived before the "live" Army personnel, who are supposed to break the news to the family first. My aunt and uncle were incredulous, holding a tiny piece of paper pronouncing their son's death, saying he was killed by "friendly fire."

We waited for his body to come home, and wondered if we could see him one final time, or if the casket would be sealed. After twelve days, he was home, complete with an honor guard and a soldier who stayed with my aunt and uncle during the funeral proceedings.

We got to see him and say our final goodbyes. Gary's hair was different, even down to the color, so we knew he had a wig on. No one spoke their thoughts – that he needed a wig because the top of his head was gone, shot off – no one wanted to face it. His body lay down low in a deep casket, and a sheet of glass covered him. We had no idea why, still don't, and no one ever wanted to know.

Gary's funeral brought the biggest crowd Prudden & Kandt Funeral Home had ever seen up to that time. The line of cars driving to Acacia Park Cemetery was over a mile long. The press, radio and television stations had representatives at every corner. At the cemetery, he got a 21-gun salute. His mother collapsed, my uncle cried, and I lived for weeks with a big lump in the pit of my stomach.

After the funeral, I moved in with his family. His sister Joanne stayed in Lockport for a while before going back home to Hawaii. His father went back to work at Harrison's, and his mother began spending a lot of time out of the house, working at the Senior Citizen's Center and becoming active in the Gold Star Mothers, a support group for women who'd lost their sons to the wars.

About two weeks after he died, his clothing and personal effects were shipped home in a large cardboard box. His watch was shattered, and stopped permanently at 11:20. We figured that's when he was shot. The bear claw he'd worn in a necklace around his neck was covered with blood, as was some of his clothing. They sent the things home with his blood still on them, and Joanne and I hid them before his parents could see.

For the next year, the Army sent home mementos of Gary. The purple heart, commendations, letters from officers… it seemed like it would never end. But eventually life went back to normal, except for every Chrismas, when we knew Gary would never be there to get another gift, or on his birthday, or during fishing season, or just about anytime something came along that Gary would have enjoyed.

The following year I married my high school sweetheart and he went to Vietnam three weeks after our wedding. The things he saw and had to endure were too much for him, and he is on disability from the horrors he witnessed while "in country." Michael J. Fox made a movie, "Casualties of War." From the things my now-ex told me of what he saw over there, that movie is the most realistic portrayal of the war – even more so than the Oliver J. Stone movies.

When Vietnam ended, the government's powers-that-be said we would never involve ourselves in such a travesty again. Since then, we've been to the Middle East several times, all small reflections of Vietnam, and now we are at it again.

The Bush administration is taking a lot of flak, more each day, for the mess we've gotten ourselves into over there in Iraq. And while more soldiers are dying everyday for the defeat of Al Qaeda, Al Qaeda is happily bombing wherever it wants, and laughing at us all the way. And you still can't convince me Saddam Hussein had much to do with Al Qaeda.

So why do we have Veteran's Day, anyway? Well, it goes way back to 1918, where people like my Uncle Clyde fought for freedom. It's official recognition says it was "the end of the first modern global conflict, World War I."

On June 4, 1926, Congress enacted this resolution:

WHEREAS the 11th of November 1918, marked the cessation of the most destructive, sanguinary, and far reaching war in human annals and the resumption by the people of the United States of peaceful relations with other nations, which we hope may never again be severed, and

WHEREAS it is fitting that the recurring anniversary of this date should be commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations; and

WHEREAS the legislatures of twenty-seven of our States have already declared November 11 to be a legal holiday: Therefore be it Resolved by the Senate (the House of Representatives concurring), That the President of the United States is requested to issue a proclamation calling upon the officials to display the flag of the United States on all Government buildings on November 11 and inviting the people of the United States to observe the day in schools and churches, or other suitable places, with appropriate ceremonies of friendly relations with all other peoples."

An Act (52 Stat. 351; 5 U. S. Code, Sec. 87a) approved the 11th of November in each year a legal holiday - according to Congress "a day to be dedicated to the cause of world peace and to be hereafter celebrated and known as Armistice Day."

Armistice Day was primarily a day set aside to honor veterans of World War I, but in 1954, after World War II had utilized the greatest mobilization of soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen in the Nation's history to date; and then after American forces had fought in Korea, the 83rd Congress, at the urging of the veterans service organizations, amended the Act of 1938 by striking out the word "Armistice" and inserting in lieu thereof the word "Veterans." With the approval of this legislation (Public Law 380) on June 1, 1954, November 11th became a day to honor American veterans of all wars.

What a shame it couldn't have ended there. To the living Veterans of World War I (are there any left?), World War II and the Korean War, I salute you. To the veterans of Vietnam and all the Middle East wars, I salute you and say, "I'm so sorry." If only the government could say the same.

Townsend can be reached at

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