Heroes in our midst: 595th OSS commander reflects on Veterans Day

SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- The pride Americans feel toward our armed forces is at an all time high. The numerous "I Support the Troops" and "God Bless our Troops" magnets and stickers are ubiquitous and much appreciated. 

But as we reflect around this Veteran's Day holiday, and as those who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan in the Global War on Terrorism return and assume their place in the fabric of American life, our nation should move beyond the slogans. 

A defining moment of my experience underscores this very point. Several years ago, during a visit to the Offutt Air Force Base Military Clothing Sales store, I noticed an older veteran struggling to reconstruct his military awards for display. I noticed he was having trouble reading the classification tags on the ribbons as he searched for the awards he had earned. 

Not wanting to appear patronizing, I didn't offer any help at first. As time progressed and the gentleman made no headway, I felt obligated. Maybe it was the small Purple Heart pin on his hat that motivated me. 

"I can't seem to find the American Defense Service Medal ribbon," the gentleman said. 

I noticed a list of awards in one of his hands and ribbons and medals in the other. We worked through his list together, talking as we went. Proudly, but humbly, he indicated that he was finally going to get all of his medals assembled for display in a shadow box. 

A medic during World War II and the Korean War, he'd recently received word that he was awarded several decorations from World War II that had been forgotten. As we double-checked his list, he explained to me what each award meant. 

"This arrowhead means an amphibious assault landing -- I went in on the first wave at Normandy," he told me. "This Combat Infantryman's Badge means I was in continuous combat with the enemy for over 30 days. I also got the Combat Medic's badge." 

He went on to point out a "new" one -- the Prisoner of War Medal. 

"They didn't have that one when I was a POW in Korea," he said. He never boasted; he simply stated what all these awards meant. 

In the course of our conversation, he learned I was an Air Force officer. From then on he addressed me by my rank -- an honor that overwhelmed me. 

As I walked toward my car, my thoughts turned to the hundreds of injured soldiers he must have helped during his tours as a medic: the faces he must have looked into and reassured as bombs fell around them and bullets whizzed by; the helplessness he must have felt as he watched many of those soldiers die in his arms. Each time his country called, he was ready to do what was asked and beyond. 

I know in my heart that I owe him, and so many others like him who have served and continue to serve. All Americans should thank him and those like him for what we have today. As evidenced by his awards and service on the beaches of Normandy and the hills of Korea, this veteran and so many others like him served with pride and honor. 

When we think of past and current wars, we tend to think of the dead. However, as Gen. George Patton said in a post-World War II speech: "Everyone always talks about the heroic dead. Well, damn-it, there's a lot of heroic alive ones out there too!" Remember that Veterans Day is about honoring the "alive ones." 

We see those "heroic alive ones" every day. Perhaps wearing Veterans of Foreign Wars cap, or a suit pin, an American Legion shirt or a Purple Heart license plate. Or maybe it's more personal than that -- a relative or friend who served is moving through your lives today. 

Such men and women are everywhere. We should be proud to show our veterans personal recognition, in addition to the bumper-stickers and magnets. 

When military personnel are buried, the flag of the United States is folded and presented to the next of kin "with the thanks of a grateful nation." Let us not wait until after our living heroes are gone to express the thanks of a grateful nation. They are out there, everywhere. You might even meet one in clothing sales!