EIGHINGER: Honoring those who served our country

Posted: Mar. 23, 2013 10:12 pm Updated: Apr. 21, 2013 12:15 am

When I was young, I spent quite a bit of time at my grandparents' house. My mom and dad both worked, so during the week my home away from home was grandma's, complete with all of the expected chocolate chip cookies and other treats.

It's funny, though, the thing I remember most about all of those years I spent there was a big picture that hung in the dining room of my Uncle Harvey, who was a World War II veteran. The picture was the traditional "soldier profile" -- stern look and hat tilted slightly to one side. I never got to know my uncle that well. He died of heart disease long before he should have. Uncle Harvey was part of author Tom Brokaw's "Greatest Generation," and if alive today would be in his 90s.

In those days, the early 1960s, the respect awarded to veterans was a given around our house and our family. I think when you have a veteran as a close relative you have a better understanding of the sacrifice involved, not only from the soldier's standpoint but the effect it has on his or her family.

Somehow during the Vietnam period and ensuing years we, as a nation, seemed to lose a big part of that respect for far too many years. It pains me every time I talk to former Vietnam veterans like Bob Craig of Palmyra or Steve Blickhan of Quincy and hear their post-war stories about returning to the United States.

Instead of a hero's welcome they felt as if they had to sneak in the back door, the political pawns from an era that we would all like to forget.

Many of these memories were brought up again recently when I was researching a story for The Herald-Whig about the late Lester Hammond Jr., "The Forgotten Hero from the Forgotten War." Hammond was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously for his heroism in the Korean War. He called in an air strike to save his company -- at the expense of his own life.

It remains one of the most incredible stories of American bravery in the face of adversity I have ever come across.

I had the opportunity to spend some time with Mr. Hammond's nephew, Brad Richmiller, who not only supplied the necessary background about his late uncle but offered some of his own views on U.S. veterans and how they are treated.

While the acceptance and treatment of our veterans is head and shoulders over what it was in the latter part of the 1960s and throughout the 1970s, some major points still need to be addressed.

Richmiller feels, and rightly so, no veteran should have to sleep on the street or wonder where his next meal will come from. He also feels more attention needs to be paid to veterans' families, especially those whose husband, mother, son or daughter does not return from harm's way.

"Our country should be ashamed of the way we have not taken care of our fallen heroes and their families," he said. "These (families) have sacrificed the most, and if we don't care of them, what are we doing? It's like we have lost our soul."

I think during and following Vietnam we did, as a country, lose our soul when it came to our veterans. Our attitude and acceptance are both much better these days, but there is still work to be done in the area of appreciation. Billy Ray Cyrus' anthem to veterans rings out, "All gave some ... and some gave all."

Think about that the next time you see a veteran at the supermarket, at the mall -- or in a bread line. Or have a memory rekindled by a picture that used to hang in a dining room many, many years ago.




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