I am 46 years old, the "military brat" of a colonel in the Air Force who has been dead for nearly 21 years. He was not a fighter, although he had once had dreams of being a pilot. He never took up a weapon in defense of our country. He was a money man. I'm not entirely sure what he did during the Vietnam War, but he was TDY (temporary duty) many times in Southeast Asia.
At the time, it all sounded so exotic, and he would bring back marvelous gifts for his wife and children upon his return from wherever he was, doing whatever he was. My awareness of the war going on "over there" was limited, really. The impact it had on the airmen and officers I encountered every day of my life on base was a mystery to me. Was I sheltered at 9? At 10? At 11?
I was. Until early 1973 and into the spring, when the call of duty came to me and mine. Operation Homecoming brought hundreds of P.O.W.s home, and their first step on true American soil was at Hickam Air Force Base. I was one of many there to greet them. No matter what time of the day or night the planes arrived, people were there to meet them, to thank them, to welcome them home.
One homecoming sticks with me. I was with my friend Nancy Hayes and her father, a major. We were both 11 years old, sixth graders at the elementary school on base. Maj. Hayes was buddies with one of the P.O.W.s coming home, and he took Nancy and me with him to talk with the returning airman. I remember little about him at all. I shook his hand. I stood up straight. I listened while Maj. Hayes and he spoke. He was gaunt. All the others in the room were as gaunt. They were not boisterous in any way, although there was noise in the cavernous room as the few people who personally knew the returning vets were able to meet with them.
I remember that encounter. I remember being on the airstrip at other times, in the middle of the night, really, watching the planes land, shouting welcomes and thanks, clapping, waving flags, honoring them. It is something I am immensely proud and privileged to have been a part of.
It is Memorial Day. Many of those P.O.W.s we greeted as they returned home are old, perhaps dead. [Yes, I know one is running for President of the United States.] So many more of their comrades didn't make it home to grow old or die on American soil. Their comrades in that war, in previous wars, in today's wars. Or they returned horribly injured. Or they returned mentally harmed. Returned and return. Never returned or never will return.
I remember. I will remember. I pray we all will.