This Independence Day in Platteville was three holidays — the other two being Memorial Day and Veterans Day — all rolled into one.
Kathy Kopp, fundraising co-chair for the Veterans Honor Roll Committee, could have been describing the finished product or the dedication ceremony or both when she said “I’m in awe. I really am.”
It was good to hear someone not from Platteville, Rolling Thunder preacher Tim Hall, say this about Platteville: “Every time I come to Platteville, someone says thank you for serving. This is the only place where someone will always say that to me.” To be known as a place where veterans are honored for service is a good thing to be known for.
I hope the veterans, from World War II onward, who were there felt honored for their service. This country hasn’t always appropriately honored those who served our country, particularly those who served in, or in the decade after, the Vietnam War. Imagine, for instance, going to Vietnam, and then going to college on the GI Bill, and witnessing antiwar protests from those whose freedom of expression you were defending, even to death.
Because we haven’t had a military draft since the end of the Vietnam War, the distance between veterans and the rest of the country has widened to some extent. That’s not a good thing, although I don’t think bringing back the draft or mandating national service is the remedy. (Serving in the military is not the only way to serve one’s country.) Enlistments increase or decrease based on the economy, but essentially those who are in the military today chose to be in the military.
I’ve interviewed a number of veterans over the years. One thing that’s always struck me is how they talk about the people with whom they served. Two decades ago, I interviewed one Desert Storm officer who spoke with great pride about how well his group worked together in Saudi Arabia. You’ve heard the phrase that there are no atheists in foxholes; there don’t seem to be loners in foxholes either. One gets the feeling that many, perhaps most, veterans look at their service, whether in war or peacetime, as something they might not have chosen to do, but are glad they did.
Standing in City Park during the searing heat of last week, one can imagine being one of the names on the front of the statues in the South Pacific during World War II, or in Vietnam, or in Saudi Arabia or Iraq. Six months from now, you can stand in City Park and as you view the snow-covered statues (which will be here long after anyone who was in the park Wednesday is gone) imagine yourself in Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge, or in Korea during the Korean War. Except you’re not wearing a helmet and loaded head to toe with Army gear, with someone shooting at you or firing things that explode at you, while you wonder if this will be your last day on Earth, if you’ll ever see your family and friends again.
The names on the memorial in the middle didn’t come back. Many of the names on the statues came back but have since died. The imagery of the statues guarding the memorial was mentioned more than once on Independence Day.
The number of veterans who survived the war but have since died is why it was enormously important to have this memorial completed and dedicated now. The History Channel program “World War II: HD” points out that only 10 percent of those who served in World War II are still living. Someone who joined the military right out of high school in 1945, near the end of World War II, is now 85 years old. Korean War veterans are in their 70s. Vietnam War veterans are in their 60s. The time to honor their service is running out.
The speech I found the most unexpectedly poignant came from Michael Trepanier of the state Department of Veterans Affairs. He was adopted by Americans (his father was a Vietnam War Navy vet) from an orphanage in South Korea. He admitted without American involvement in South Korea he probably wouldn’t be alive today. So he paid back his adoptive country by joining the Army, where during Operation Iraqi Freedom he worked with an Iraqi translator whose goal in life was to set foot in this country. The translator died for our country. Those who look at the Korean War as a needless stalemate can look at Trepanier — and for that matter South Korea’s prosperity in contrast to North Korea’s wretched poverty — for a different perspective.
One war that isn’t specifically honored by statues, though those who served in it are listed on the statues, is the Cold War, of which the Korean and Vietnam wars could be said to be part. I’m old enough to remember TV reports about the Vietnam War. (I vaguely remember the UW–Madison Sterling Hall bombing, when I was a 6-year-old Madisonian.) The Cold War wasn’t like watching Operation Desert Storm or Operation Iraqi Freedom take place, but it was something that kind of lurked in the background in my lifetime until the collapse of the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies. Before I was born, there was the Berlin Crisis, during which what is now the Army National Guard’s 229th Engineer Company was called to active duty, and the Cuban Missile Crisis — days in which, based on what I’ve read and heard, there was cause to wonder if we were going to survive.
One thing that differentiates the Veterans Honor Roll from the Vietnam Moving Wall, whose 2009 visit to Platteville helped inspire the Veterans Honor Roll effort, is that many of those honored on the statues can see that honorific. No one on the Vietnam Moving Wall is alive to see their memorial. There were numerous moments of fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers showing their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren where their names were on the statues. Those were the last poignant scenes of the ceremony, but not the last poignant scenes you’ll see in City Park.