Today marks the anniversary of WWI, often referred to as the “The Great War”. The war was originally ignited by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, by Yugoslav nationalist, Gavrilo Princip, in Sarajevo. Within weeks, the major powers were at war and the conflict quickly spread around the world. Twenty-seven countries were eventually drawn into the conflict, which touched every corner of the globe – from the trenches of Belgium to remote villages in Africa. An estimated 16 million soldiers and civilians died in the military violence, while more than 50 million more are thought to have died from resulting hunger and disease. By its end, the maps of Europe and Asia were redrawn, marking the end of the imperial empires of Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia and Ottoman. Out of all the ashes rose the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany and the still embattled Middle East.
The last living veteran of WWI was Florence Green, a British woman who served in the Allied armed forces. She passed away in February 2012 at the incredible age of 110. Green joined the Royal Air Force and worked in the officers’ mess in England, but her service wasn’t recognized until 2010 after a researcher uncovered her records. For 90 years, she remained anonymous! Frank Buckles was the longest surviving American veteran of WWI. He also lived to a ripe old age, passing away in February 2011, just a few weeks after his 111th birthday. I ran across a news article about Buckles that said he was still driving the tractor on his West Virginia farm at the age 103! Of the 65 million brave men and women that served, there are no survivors left, which is a sad thing for the world. Every story they had to tell, every insight they could provide, everything that could be learned about the war and their experience has been written and recorded. There will never be a new tale told. Losing the perspective of those who actually participated in any war leaves a tremendous gap, but World War I was especially unique. Almost an entire generation was lost in it. While millions signed up to serve, most had no idea what they were even fighting “for.” Their desire to serve was motivated by one simple principle, as Brank Buckles once recalled: “If your country needs you, you should be right there, that is the way I felt when I was young, and that’s the way I feel today.” We should absolutely honor their courage, bravery and sacrifice and never forget what that generation gave back to the world.
My grandfather, who served in WWII, said to me late in life, he was very interested in seeing how my generation turned out. He said it would be the only generation in U.S. history that wouldn’t fully know and understand what it means to sacrifice for your nation. Yes, the men and women of our Armed Forces have voluntarily signed up to protect us, and they have earned our respect and support. But there have been consequences we’ve rarely considered. With relatively few people and families now shouldering this enormous burden, it has created somewhat of a divide in our society. In all previous generations, families in all neighborhoods across this nation were forced to make huge sacrifices. Mothers would be forced go weeks and months without hearing from their sons. Wives would check the mail religiously in hopes of learning more about their family’s future. Will her husband return home safely or not? The entire nation and neighborhoods would wait and mourn together. Today, that has all significantly changed. Most Americans appreciate what the military does, but for many it’s simply out of sight and out of mind. My grandfather obviously knew what he was talking about. He knew that a generation that didn’t have to sacrifice as a whole, would probably struggle to unite and become divided. He also wondered how our generation would raise their children? He wondered if the kids today, that my generation is raising, would be tough enough and have enough grit to overcome the hurdles ahead? He said that parents who didn’t have to make the sacrifice, would have a tough time raising kids that would have to make a sacrifice. When I was younger, it didn’t make a lot of sense to me, but now that I look back, almost 20 years after his passing, I would say his thoughts were very insightful. Here’s to ALL the American families who have sacrificed!
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