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What will you do on Veterans Day?

A Veterans Day Message For America

As I do every year on every Veterans Day, I attend a ceremony to honor our nation's veterans.  One year I chose to attend the ceremony at Veterans Park in Mentor, Ohio, my hometown.  It was a modest ceremony, maybe 40 people at best, but then again through the years I have become accustom to that. There were the usual politicians and dignitaries and I appreciated their attendance but they are not who caught my attention.  There was Chuck, the Vietnam Veteran who gave a bit more than his "All".  He gave a leg also and had to be supported by a wall and his crutches, for he wanted to stand for the ceremonies.  As I sat and held the hand of my high school sweetheart who I had re-met and married 29 years later, there was an eloquent Marine Corp Officer who was speaking of our veterans.  When she mentioned that it was 20 degrees below zero at the Chosin reservoir, a voice cried out, "45 below sweetheart". I knew that the veteran meant no discourtesy to her, and I hoped that no one saw the tears in my eyes as I tried to conceive what he might have endured. There were the World War II Veterans.  I felt secure in my convictions that their heroic actions made it possible for me to be attending that day.  They just sat in silence, alone in their memories. Sadly, I realized that some of them might not be here next year but I vowed I would not forget them.

I remembered those Veterans that had already passed on. My father who although his foot was smashed in a coal mine in Pennsylvania had served in the U.S. Army in World War II and did what he could. I remembered my "Uncle Steve" who lost most of the use of one arm to German bullets. I remembered my "Uncle Derby" who landed at Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944.  He told me that he tried to walk on the beach on June 7, but he could not.  There were so many bodies he had to walk on them.

Every June 16th I remember my "Brother In Arms", a ”Swift Boat Sailor” named Tony Chandler, who we laid to rest 33 years to the day he was Missing in action in Vietnam.  We got back an arm bone and a finger.

I remember seeing the smiling face of a replacement we took on a raid with us on the evening of 08 Mar 69. His name was Poole.  We had to take Poole with us because our engineman was hit with shrapnel the day before.  Poole was supposed to be going home.  He only had three days left in Nam. Fifteen minutes later he only had half a face and I had to use my shoelace to stop the bleeding from the AK47 round that tore an artery in his leg. As I carried him to a Medivac chopper through a rice paddy I remember thinking that this would be the last day of my life and I wondered who would tell my gal back home that the boy she loved had died that night.  Would it be a man in a military uniform? Perhaps my father, or maybe a preacher. I could go on but it isn't necessary.  The thing I remember most about that day is that 18 American Sailors on three PCF’s took some fast boats in harms way.  Eight of us brought the boats back.  The gal who loved me that night waited for her “husband to be” to come home.  When I did, I could not talk to her and she could not talk to me.  Someone other than the young naive boy she kissed goodbye at the airport 3 years earlier came home to her.

I think of my shipmate from my first tour in Nam. His name is Loyal Doty. I have always found it ironic that his name was Loyal.  I looked up Loyal on the Virtual Wall website.  It says, "Accidental Homicide".  I don't think that is totally accurate, for I was there.  Without warning Loyal pulled out his 45, put it to his chest and said "No More" pulled the trigger and blew his heart out through his back. You can find his name on panel 38E, line 48 on a black granite wall in Washington.

Not far from that wall there is an enduring symbol of freedom that I am sure most Americans have seen a photo of.  The flag raising on Iwo Jima.  Some might even know that there were 6 men that raised that flag on Mount Surabachi.  One was named Harlon Block.  Harlon died later that day with his intestines in his hands. Another is Rene Gagnon from New Hampshire. If you took Rene's helmet off at the moment that photo was taken, and looked in the webbing of that helmet; you would find a photograph-- a photograph of his girlfriend. Rene put that in there for protection, because he was scared. He was 18 years old. Boys won the battle of Iwo Jima.  Boys, not old men.  Franklin Sousley was one of those men also. Franklin died on Iwo Jima at the age of 19. When the telegram came to tell his mother that he was dead, it went to the Hilltop General Store. A barefoot boy ran that telegram up to his mother's farm. The neighbors could hear her scream all night and into the morning. The neighbors lived a quarter of a mile away.

Ira Hayes, a Pima Indian from Arizona was one of those men also. Ira Hayes walked off Iwo Jima. He went into the White House and President Truman told him, "You're a hero." He told reporters, "How can I feel like a hero when 250 of my buddies hit the beach with me and only 27 of us walked off alive?" He had images of horror in his mind. Ira Hayes died dead drunk, face down at the age of 32. Ten years after the picture was taken.

A couple of years ago I went to a funeral home nearby in Willoughby, Ohio.  Standing next to the casket was a proud young Marine.  I could not even imagine his thoughts as I shook his hand for it was another Marine, his brother, lying in that casket.

Veterans Day is a national holiday where the politicians even down to the local level receive a day off of work with pay and if you happen to work for a bank you will be free to do what you choose that day.  I do find some irony in the fact that most veterans will have to go to work on that day. I wonder especially about the high school seniors of this great country who are now trying to make a determination as to what they will do with their lives when they graduate.  The fact that our nation is still at war will add more meaning to their decision. Most will chose 1 of 3 options.  Will I go to college? Will I find a job? Or will I join the military?  Please hold dear those choices because for many of those that Veterans Day honors, they did not have them.

As a sixty-six year old veteran, I look at Veterans Day from a different prospective now than I did as a young man about to graduate from high school.  I’m sure the World War II and Korean Veterans share my view on this. As a Vietnam Veteran We did not have option #2, (find a job) for if you did not go to college, your were drafted into the Armed Services and in all likelihood were going to Vietnam.  For Korea and World War II veterans they only had one option.  They were going to war.

If you value the freedom you have to make your choice upon graduation then I have a suggestion for you of what you might do on November 11, 2013.  I would suggest that first you see the movie, “Saving Private Ryan”.  This may give you a new appreciation for the freedom you have to enjoy Veterans Day and you might be astonished where men find such courage.  Then please go to a VA hospital near you, hold a 90 year Old World War II Veteran in your arms and tell him, I appreciate what you did”.  If you have the time you might want to do the same for a 80 year old Korean War Veteran.

They are easy to spot.  Just look for the ones missing fingers and toes from frostbite. Vietnam Veterans stand out in the crowd also.  They are around 65 years old now (that war lasted 14 years) and are the ones missing a limb or two from the extensive use of booby traps by the Viet Cong.  

If you’re really fortunate you might even find a Desert Storm Vet, an Afghan Vet, or an Iraqi Vet.  Their ranks are a little thinner in the VA hospitals though but growing as I write. The “First Gulf War” was a good war from our soldier's perspective. We only lost 148 soldiers in that war but Veterans Day will be a bit different for their loved ones than it is for you and I. The Desert Storm soldiers received the homecoming they deserved, but for the ones in the VA hospital, they probably missed out on the parade. They might have stepped on a mine and it’s hard to march without feet.

You do not become a Veteran until you leave active duty in our armed services whether you leave when your enlistment runs out or you leave in a “Body Bag”.

As I write there have been 4,486 Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Air Force, and Coastguard killed in action in Iraq.  Add the 2289 killed in Afghanistan and you have a few more Veterans to honor this day.  Will you be remembering them this day or will you check the papers to see if the discount stores are running a “Veterans Day Sale?”

I would like to mention that I mean no disrespect to the Veterans who toiled in Panama, Libya, Bosnia, Hatti, The Dominican Republic, Somalia, or Grenada or anywhere else we might have sent our troops.  I’m sure I may have missed a few countries but alas, I grow weary in trying to remember them all.

In 1991, everywhere I looked there was an orange ribbon tied to a tree or a lamppost and no matter whom you asked, they said, “I support Our Troops”.  A stark and welcome difference from the Vietnam era.  I remember well a young soldier from my home area that served in Desert Storm. His name was Timothy Allen Shaw.  On Labor Day, 1991, I attended a ceremony at John Carol University to award a Purple Heart and a Southwest Asia Campaign Medal to Timothy.  Unfortunately Timothy couldn’t be with us at this ceremony.  

He was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery a few months earlier. He died in his sleep. In attendance were the Reverend and Mrs. Shaw, myself, and 2 other Vietnam Veterans.   As I scanned the room, much to my chagrin, there were no orange ribbons to be found, no sign that said, “I support The Troops”, and no politicians to be found. Our local Congressman was at the parade to honor the Desert Storm Veterans but unfortunately he didn’t make it to this ceremony. To this day I am glad that I attended with two of my fellow Veterans or Rev. and Mrs. Shaw would have stood there alone.  When I came home that day I opened a drawer and removed small leather bound case I keep in there.  It has an inscription on it.  It says, “United States Of America”.  I removed its contents and tried to contemplate their true meaning.  In my case were six medals and 4 citations awarded to me for my service to my country.  

I did so with none of the braggadocio and false illusions of warfare of my younger years. With age and reflection the contents of that case have taken on a new perspective for me.  I am proud that I served my country but as I heard another Sailor in my unit state, “I no longer view war as a way of fulfilling my childhood fantasies, for my soul did not go along for the ride”.  I picked up the medal with the Bronze “V” on it that was awarded to me for “Valor In Combat” and wondered who’s son I may have killed to receive such an award.  Were there a Rev. and Mrs. Shaw somewhere in Southeast Asia that received an award for the loss of their son?  I picked up my Vietnamese Cross Of Gallantry and wondered what meaning it might have to the boy’s parents.  I looked at my Presidential Unit Citation and pondered the fact that the man who was President when it was awarded to me had to resign in disgrace. And lastly I wondered what the medal must have looked like that was awarded to the Iraqi soldier that launched the scud missile that killed Timothy Allen Shaw and 27 other Brave Americans on that fateful day.  Surely it must have a bronze “V” on it. Unfortunately I only have the questions, not the answers.

I was asked to fight a war where Victory was unattainable and defeat was unacceptable.  I live with that contradiction each day of my life now.  Each time I visit the Vietnam Memorial I can’t help but wonder if the name of the first man to set foot on the planet Mars may be inscribed there.  Maybe the man or women (There are 19 women on that wall) to find the cure for AIDS is there.

The regular Armed Forces probably wont take me now but I would go if asked and I have volunteered my services to the United States Coast Guard to protect our homeland and to train the next generation, for I have know the horrors of war only too well.  A few seasons ago two of the active duty Coast Guard personnel in my home station were to receive an award for “300 hours underway”.  My hours totaled close to 400 and my wife who is a qualified crew member had over 200.  Both of us are proud to still be serving our country.  I hope that something I teach them might someday save their life.  I am proud that when the Commanding Officer of our Coast Guard Station sent a letter to all of out flotilla, he included the following statement.

 “Everyone in 7-6 contributes to the Coast Guard’s mission goals but those of you we see roaming the passageways of the station hold a special place in our hearts.  I’d like to single out Joe Muharsky for his wit and charm (I know I’m creating a monster), many an auxiliarist and active duty crewman have received valuable experience patrolling with Joe this season.”

I read the news every morning on the internet and this morning when I logged on to CNN.com,  the first image I saw was an Army nurse sitting on a wounded American soldier pumping his heart to try to save his life.  I am not ashamed to say I cried, for I know that the memories for that nurse will be forever seared in his soul.  When your loved one returns from war and he can’t talk to you, don’t even think about telling him, “I understand!”  You don’t understand and you never will unless you have walked in their shoes and he or she will turn you off like a light bulb.

I was speaking to a group of graduate students in psychology at Cleveland State University in 1991. After listening to my story, a young man asked me the question; “Do you think you can ever love again”? I’m quite sure he thought I wasn’t ready for that question but as it turned out, he wasn’t quite ready for my answer. This was my reply.  “I told that young man that he had no idea what love was.  I said, “Unlike you son, most Veterans do not put conditions on love”.  If there was one thing that war taught me it was the true meaning of love. I can love you for who you are son, not who I might want you to be. Another thing I learned from war is that when men go into combat together, they might not like each other but they do love each other.

 It doesn’t matter whether you are black or white, northern or southern.  You know that when the going gets tough that he will do what is necessary to save your life even if it means he might lose his and you will do the same for him.   They love each other out of necessity because they know that if they don’t, none will survive.  

If I didn’t learn anything else from war son I truly did learn how to love.  I can walk into a forest and sit next to a tree and observe all of nature’s wonders for I have seen Napalm burn the jungle.  I can love a child’s laugh because I have heard their screams.  I can love the freedom you have today to go out into the world and choose what you want to do because when I was your age I was deprived of my freedom, my youth, and my innocence, while I was supposed to be making this a better world for you to live in.  I do feel I have played a small part in making this a better world for you to live in, not because I have fought and killed but because I cried out in anger and told you the horror and reality of warfare.  I pray to God that none of you ever have to rest your head on a pillow at night and try to sleep with the memories that the men carry with them that landed at Omaha beach, Inchon or the Ashau Valley.  But I want you to realize that they are why you have the freedom to read this letter.

We currently have about 84,000 soldiers missing in action.  74,000 from World War II, 8,100 from Korea, and about 1,800 from Vietnam including WO1 Dale Allan Pearce, (Missing In Action May 17, 1971) a graduate of Mentor High School where I made my home in 1970.  When is the last time you attended a POW ceremony.  I don’t remember every having to go early to make sure I got a seat. I hope you think of them and their loved ones on Veterans Day.  I will.

I have held my brothers in my arms and listened to their screams.  I have never heard one man scream for liberty, honor and justice.  They scream for their mothers, their wives, their girlfriends and God, providing they still have a mouth to scream with and they did it so you might be free only asking for your respect in return.  Trust me, it's not a lot to ask.

As I mentioned earlier, you are not a veteran until you leave the United States military service.  I remember three new Veterans who I honored November 11, 2001, only two months after an attack on our homeland.  They were the first military casualties of our "War On Terrorism". Spc. John Edmunds, who left a note for his wife on the refrigerator that said "Be strong while I am gone". Edmunds signed up for the Army at the age of 17, when he was only a senior in high school, an honors student. His father had completed three tours in Vietnam, and his grandfather fought in World War II.  Private First Class Kristofor T. Stonesifer, 28, Died Oct. 19 when his Black Hawk helicopter crashed upon attempting to land in Pakistan. Air Force Master Sgt. Evander Andrews, 36, of Died Oct. 10 in a forklift accident while he was helping construct an airstrip in Qatar. Sadly I realized this list would grow and it has Please don’t forget them on November 11.  

If you make the choice to join the military then someday Veterans Day will take on a new meaning for you also.  I would like to point out how I feel about that though.  If you choose to join the military to protect the freedoms that you have received because of the sacrifices our veterans made and the very freedom I have to tell you how I feel about it, then I think you have made an honorable choice.  If you feel that “Being All You Can Be” is to get another human being in your rifle sites than I do feel sorry for you for when you pull that trigger you will be forever changed.  

I will leave you with one final irony to think about on this Veterans Day.  During the “First Gulf War there were many Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen who had joined the reserves that were called up for active duty also.  There was one auto company in this country that saw fit to pay them what they were making at their jobs for the duration of that war so that they wouldn’t run the risk of losing their homes their medical insurance and their livelihood.  Which of the big three do you think it was?  Was it Ford, General Motors, Chrysler?  No my friends, the company was Honda.  

If you find time on Veterans Day to visit that VA hospital, hold a World War II Veteran in your arms and tell him, “I love you and I appreciate my freedom,” Ask him how he feels about that.

May Freedom Endure On this Veterans Day 2013.

Joe Muharsky
Mentor, Ohio
Petty Officer Second Class
United States Navy Black Berets, Vietnam
Operational Specialist, USS Brister (DER 327), Vietnam 1967
Forward Machine Gunner Swift Boat #78 Dannang, 1968
Forward Machine Gunner Swift Boat #94 An Thoi, 1969
Task Force 115
Operation Market Time
Operation Sea Lords
Operation Phoenix
Coxswain and Flotilla Operations Officer, United States Coast Guard Auxilliary, 2002-
Recipient, First “Admiral Zumwalt Humanitarian Award” from the “Swift Boat Sailors Association”, 2003
Recipient, United States Coast Guard Search and Rescue team nine award, 2004

Mon Nov 11, 2013 at 3:39 AM PT: Veterans day

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