By: Pete Zubof
A few years ago, I attended a veterans’ event with a good friend of mine. He had earned a Bronze Star for his service in Iraq. As we conversed with veterans of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, my friend expressed self-doubt regarding the medal that he had received. He felt as if he hadn’t earned his medal in the same manner as these men and women; somehow his award hadn’t required as much sacrifice. Although he had been in Iraq for over a year, my friend had never seen frontline combat. He earned his medal for working at a command center buried in a bunker on a well-guarded installation. My friend’s job was critical to military operations but was relatively sheltered from danger. It didn’t, in his evaluation, involve any high degree of valor and therefore was not worthy of recognition. He also felt that receiving a Bronze Star for his service somehow diminished the value of the medals awarded to these other, more deserving veterans.
A World War II veteran who was also attending the event overheard our conversation about this Bronze Star. He, too, had earned this medal, as an infantryman in the European Theater. This World War II veteran had endured the proverbial trial by fire and had faced imminent death at every turn. In my friend’s opinion, this man had earned his medal. The grizzled old veteran, however, had a different take. His service in Europe had lasted just over a year. A violent year to be sure but, he rationalized, a short time in his otherwise long life. My friend, by contrast, continued to endure a war which seemingly had no end in sight. The World War II veteran saw his own medal as one for risking his life in several intense but short encounters. My friend’s medal, he offered, was for the long haul: a reward for sacrificing much of his young adulthood in the service.
From the D-day invasion to Germany’s unconditional surrender at Reims, just 335 days elapsed. In fact, from the bombing of Pearl Harbor to Japan’s surrender, American involvement in World War II lasted less than four years. These were four years of terrible violence and loss of life, to be sure, but they were finite nonetheless. Even in Vietnam, combat operations officially spanned a period of 10 years, from 1965 to 1975. Since the war in Afghanistan began in earnest on October 7, 2001, the United States has been at war for 4,767 uninterrupted days, that is, over 13 years (as of this writing). This week, the United States Marine Corps withdrew all of their forces from southern Afghanistan, which represents a major reduction of forces in that combat theater. Yet simultaneously, Navy aircraft conducted airstrikes against a new threat, the Islamic State, in Syria and Iraq, and the President announced a U.S. presence in Afghanistan through at least 2015. The long haul continues.
On Veterans Day, we celebrate military service in all its forms. From those who that stormed the beaches of Normandy to those who continue to endure the long haul of the Global War on Terrorism. Some of us in uniform serve for a short time while others serve for a whole career; some face combat over and over, while others never see the ugly side of war. Service, in all its forms, requires sacrifice. Some have that sacrificial toll taken in one dramatic event. For my generation of veterans, some face that kind of singular event, but we all continue to be in for the long haul.