Sunday, December 11, 2016

Stories Are Important

I don’t know that celebrate is the right word for what Americans did December 7th, but we certainly should remember that date. Those who read news or social media were reminded throughout that day to recall military personnel who faced multiple enemy attacks at Pearl Harbor 75 years ago. History lovers followed up with FDR’s response to this event. What we can do less of these days is listen to stories of living survivors.

Western Kansas men and women answered duty’s call that December day. Hardly a family lived that didn’t send victory mail to loved ones serving in the European, African, or Pacific theaters. Those soldiers lucky enough to return lived among us. They labored as farmers, ranchers, teachers, entrepreneurs, preachers, law enforcement officers, bankers, and other occupations. They were our parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, spouses, friends, and enemies. Some shared recollections so others could better understand sacrificing for the greater good.

 As time passes, more of these heroes become memories. Over 16 million Americans served during WW II. By 2016, the Department of Veterans Affairs calculated that approximately 620,000 of those individuals still survived. As 2017 slides into view, that number drops daily. Unless families presently have a soldier in service, it’s difficult for children to understand the intensity that turned so many youngsters just out of high school into valiant warriors.

For us whose loved ones, friends, co-workers, and teachers wore a WW II uniform, their legacies influenced our lives. I grew up listening to an uncle’s stories of surviving the Pearl Harbor attacks. A Kansas farm boy, he never expected to experience such carnage when he joined the U.S. Navy in 1940. He returned to start a family and teach school. Two generations later, his granddaughter bravely served in Afghanistan.

Another uncle performed his duty on ships guarding the Pacific. He wasn’t a talker, but his service made his family proud and inclined my dad, his younger brother, to join the Marines and serve during the Korean Conflict. That, in turn, inspired later relatives to wear USMC insignia as they protected their country.

Getting out of uniform didn’t end a soldier’s service. Many filled post-war teaching positions. History classes in the not-too-distant past  included lessons from people who fought in hedgerows and survived torpedoed ships. I found t those instructors’ knowledge so valuable that when I began teaching, I asked my students to interview former veterans. Among those stories, we discovered a resident who’d seen the atomic bomb explode. Another pupil’s neighbor helped liberate Dachau. Interviewers learned a survivor couldn’t talk about some experiences without choking up even after 45 years.

These stories provided primary sources that taught the importance of protecting freedoms many take for granted. Suddenly, we’re discovering this information now exists only in books or on film. I hope Americans never forget such difficult times or citizens who left loving homes and comfortable lives to face unrelenting enemies. Their remaining messages remind us to capture the experiences of still living veterans. What they share is profound, necessary, and fleeting if it isn’t recorded.

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