Veterans Day is a 79-year-old tradition that acknowledges the military service of five generations of American men and women. The day is marked here and across the nation with with traditional ceremonies, highlighted by parades of vets, civilians, and kids, and generally, a visit to cemeteries to place flags on the graves of fallen and deceased military service members.
The day began in 1919 as Armistice Day in England, to gratefully note the end of World War I on Nov. 11, 1918. Eleven countries engaged in that war embraced the idea. In 1938, the United States renamed the observance Veterans Day to include all veterans.
Nelson Bryant of West Tisbury has seen more Veterans Days than about anyone around here, except for his brother-in-law Ted Morgan, over in Edgartown.
On Saturday, Mr. Bryant and Mr. Morgan will observe their 79th Veterans Day, living in a world full of wars far different from World War II, their war.
Since their war ended more than 70 years ago, America’s military have served in a variety of wars, conflicts, and police actions, which have engendered a range of public reaction to those who put themselves in harm’s way, from undiluted heroes in World War II to opprobrium in Vietnam, and a range of emotions attached to the nearly 20 years of conflict in the Middle East.
The Times spoke with three veterans of war over that 70-year span to learn about their feelings about their wars, and about being a U.S. military veteran, and how they are viewed by their countrymen.
We learned that while their motivations for service were each different, at the end of the day these three volunteers fought for the values and belief system their country represents, that they felt defending the American ethic was worth their sacrifices, and that public approval, helpful or hurtful, wasn’t the point for them.
David Madeiras, 73, spent seven years (1960–67) in the Marine Corps, a lot of that time on the ground in Vietnam as a sergeant in infantry. These days he’s laid up a lot from non-service-related ailments. He has retired from decades of work at Phillips Hardware Store in Oak Bluffs.
“Being a vet means you give up a lot. There’s sacrifice: living in barracks with 40 or 50 guys, away from home; you can’t go when you want or where you want, a very controlled environment. I had one reenlistment and one extension. Why? My family has served in every war of the 20th century. I didn’t want them looking down on me for not meeting the standards of what they called a veteran.
“I’ve noticed that things that were important 50 years ago seem less important now.
But I was young, gung ho, I didn’t have the information then that I have now. From what I understand, [Vietnam] was a civil war, like ours.
“All that stuff about us being baby killers wasn’t true. People didn’t have the real information. Most of their information came from slanted news. World War II was different. Everybody was involved.
“In Korea and Vietnam there were no ration books, less involvement. People had butter and Big Macs, and didn’t give a hoot. But that’s the way the world goes. Today people see a threat with ISIS and terrorism, and it’s scary. Maybe with ISIS and 9/11, we are looking to find someone willing to stand up to it, save our lives.
It’s a lot better, different, now. I’ve even spoken to draft dodgers who acknowledge we did a good job overall, that allowed them to be who they were. I get a lot of home services these days, and my military papers are hanging on the wall. I’ve noticed that the past five or seven years, people see them and they thank me for my service.
“I’d have to say I’m ambiguous about Veterans Day. It was an honor to serve, and at the same time you think about the guys you knew and the guys who didn’t come back.”
Nelson Bryant has a full life in West Tisbury with his wife Ruth. Last Saturday, Mr. Bryant, 94, took a break from chopping firewood and hanging homegrown vegetables to dry in the cellar in order to talk with The Times about his military life in World War II.
“I was in my first semester at Dartmouth, a summer session, and I was thinking, ‘What am I doing here when guys are fighting and dying?’” he recalled.
“Our picture was very clear. Pearl Harbor got nailed, and Germany supported it. I felt we should be at war. The threat was clear, obvious, and direct. Now my son volunteered for duty in Vietnam, which I didn’t like. I thought [the war] was a mistake, I didn’t like the idea of [the Vietnam War] at all,” he said. Mr. Bryant enlisted in the Army in 1942, became a paratrooper with engagements in the Normandy invasion, Holland, and the Battle of the Bulge. Several times he intersected with fellow Islander Ted Morgan on French soil.
“The night before we jumped into Normandy, Ted came to my tent to wish me luck. He knew it was going to be my first jump,” Mr. Bryant said. Mr. Bryant was wounded in Normandy, and again in Holland. He soldiered on, working in the postwar occupation before returning home to finish college and embark on a newspaper career that culminated in a 30-year career as outdoor columnist for the New York Times.
“I love my country, and I’m extraordinarily grateful to the Veterans Administration [VA] for the services they have provided me. I have 10 percent disability from that machine gun bullet in Normandy,” he said.
Mr. Bryant is an organized and thoughtful man, who considers his words before speaking.
“Today it seems service is not because the cause is just, but that kids didn’t know what else to do, maybe searching for a community or a career. It’s hard to answer about public respect for vets. But no, I don’t think the public does. Too many battles in strange places, but the kids fighting those battles experience the same things we experienced,” he said.
Ruth Bryant, sitting at the kitchen table with us, then noted that “a nation shored you up” after returning from service, a point Mr. Bryant endorsed. “I do think that support helped my recovery. When I was finishing up at Dartmouth, I had the thought that I was something different from other students.
“I think about [the war] every day. It was the supreme and overwhelming experience in my life. Such a multitude of thoughts and emotions, even now dominates my life. Often I wish life had more and other meanings for me to experience,” he said.
Mr. Bryant said he has little feeling about Veterans Day, while grinning and acknowledging the fervor with which Mr. Morgan embraces the event. “Things happen subtly and in so many ways to one man in one war,” he said.
As a veteran of 22 years of military service, including a stint in Desert Storm in Iraq, Barry Meekin evinces the same unswerving devotion to American values as Mr. Madeiras and Mr. Bryant, but his military journey began far differently from his colleagues’.
“I was a knucklehead with a high school degree. I stood for the flag, but wasn’t a patriotic zealot. There were no jobs in 1982, and I had no training, so best option was the military,” he said.
When he mustered out in early 2004, Mr. Meekin was a well-trained man with a wife and four kids. He had a nursing degree and experience in several medical specialties. He also had both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in psychology and sociology, and was expert in the care and repair of military vehicles.
And he had developed a life perspective which told him that the American value system had created the best country in the world.
He served in several areas of this country, and in several others, including a tour of Iraq during Desert Storm in the early 1990s, which caused long-term medical problems that leave him disabled today with back issues, concentration and memory loss, and muscle spasms.
Mr. Meekin’s experience and education provides us with a dispassionate perspective. “I’m proud of what I’ve done, and of my country. My values changed because I had grown up. Things go full circle. It depends on which era in which you were a veteran. It depends on the state of the country, what we are doing. World Wars I and II and Korea were different in terms of being a veteran. I think we lost sight of what it means to be a veteran in the ’60s and ’70s. In movements [like the Sixties antiwar protests], emotions fan the fire. I’m not saying [movements] don’t have purpose, but I think we lost sight of who soldiers really were,” he said.
“When we were busing to ship to Desert Storm, our biggest fear was that we would be treated like Vietnam vets. It depends on what the public believes. They bought into the threat in the World Wars and Korea, but didn’t buy into the threat of communism in Vietnam. I think they saw a new kind of Nazism with Saddam Hussein, and bought into that.
“As far as Veterans Day, I would say I’m not big on limelight, but I tear up every time I hear ‘God Bless the USA’ being sung,” he said. “People should understand [Veterans Day] is not just one day, it’s every day, not one day a year.
“We didn’t do [service] for accolades; it’s not the hero syndrome. We did what we did, but the cost continues every day of your life,” he said.
Mr. Meekin’s analytical training seems to allow him to separate his military life from the physical aftereffects which today keep him from practicing his skills. For that he holds the VA accountable. “Was it worth it? Of course it was. I developed career skills, and have a wife and four kids I was able to raise and support.
“My big gripe is the ‘temporary’ side effects of TB and anthrax shots for Desert Storm, which have taken away my ability to work,” he said. Mr. Meekin continues to wage a battle for treatment and benefits for conditions that have been acknowledged by the medical community but steadfastly denied by the VA.
Mr. Meekin has been waging that battle for 15 years, his fight made a bit less lonely by Dr. Monty Vanbeber and his staff at the Hyannis VA clinic. “I’ve gotten more help from Monty in the past two years than in the previous 13 from the VA. To me the VA has become just like another insurance company, denying benefits until you give up,” he said. Dr. Vanbeber and his staff have set up regular visits to the Island to treat and enroll Island vets. JoAnn Murphy, Dukes County veterans agent, estimates that the Vanbeber team has signed up 200 vets over the past two years.
That’s the thing about vets: They know what they believe in, and they don’t quit.