A day for veterans

5 December 2006

Courtesy of TP.c, I found today Bill Moyers speech delivered on 16 November: his Message to West Point, a stirring and erudite lecture, invites discussion on the meaning of freedom and the role of the Army in the United States.

This talk caused me to reflect on veterans I know: my grandfathers, one of whom was career Army and served in Korea and Germany and the other who missed the Pacific Theater in WWII by what seems like a few minutes, my uncles who served in Vietnam and suffered many of the awful consequences thereof, and my friends in uniform now, some at home and some abroad.

One good friend who wasn’t in uniform when I knew him was Jonn Altonn, a retired newspaperman and WWII Navy veteran. I got to know Jonn when he volunteered every Saturday for several years leading tours to the summit of Mauna Kea. Remembered for his often garish suspenders, his constant sense of humor and fund of jokes, and his supra-octagenarian sharpness and activity, Jonn passed away a little more than a year ago. One day on Mauna Kea, I sat with him at lunch, and asked him about his time in the war. Jonn served on several ships in the Pacific, but the experience he said had made the sharpest impression was his time on the light cruiser Atlanta, including its sinking at He hadn’t been to any reunions, and hadn’t even told his family about those experiences until very recently, and as Bill Moyers says and others I’ve talked to reiterate, that isn’t uncommon.

Sitting there safe and well-fed in the bright sun magnified the gravity and drama of Jonn’s harrowing description of escaping the burning, sinking ship amid strafing fire and torpedo attacks. It also reminded me that if he was happy to be there now, I should be too. I don’t have either the power of eloquence or the trauma of experience to talk about how to consider the people who have fought and will fight for us, but I think it is important to take a moment to do so.

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