Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Armistice Day

Today used to be known as Armistice Day. It was on this day at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918 that the armistice (peace treaty) was signed to end the war to end all wars, also known as World War I. There were great hopes at the end of this brutal war that this would truly be the last great conflict between nations.

Little is really known of this war today. Sadly, the brutal facts of the bloodshed of this war has been eclipsed by the even greater brutality of World War II that followed only a few years later. But World War I was brutal. Few people today, I am sure, do not realize that the United States sat on the sidelines as Europe plunged deeper and deeper into war from 1914 on. America was only too happy to remain isolated from the ravages of the violence in Europe. However, as time went on, it was clear that the US would have no choice but to join the fight. And we did so in 1917.

Also little known and realized is the fact that the United States used poison gas as a weapon on the battlefield. This was a common practice in those days. And this is where the War gets personal for me.

My grandmother had a brother (my great-uncle) who fought in the war. He was at the front on this day in 1918. When the armistice was signed on the morning of November 11, he was in the trenches in the Black Forrest in France. Because communications were not then what they are now, his unit had no idea of the cease fire that had been declared the moment the peace treaty was signed. In the middle of the afternoon, orders were issued for his unit to launch a gas attack on the German entrenchments across the way. The wind was favorable and the battle would be quick. Or so they thought.

As the noxious mustard gas drifted over the field toward the Germans, the wind suddenly and without warning, began to change directions. Before they knew it, the cloud enveloped the Americans. Some of the troops managed to don their protective gas masks but most did not. One of those was my grandmother's brother. He died there on the battlefield at the age of 23.

Back in Pekin, Illinois, where my grandmother, her father, mother, and sister lived, plans were being made that very day for their beloved son and brother's return. He had plans to enter the seminary and become a Catholic priest upon his return home. He was due back shortly before Christmas. He would, indeed, be back before Christmas, but not in the way hoped for.

One can only imagine the grief of the family and many friends that Lawrence had. From all accounts, he was a popular young man, always willing to lend a hand to any who may need one. Now he was dead, a casualty of a war that had officially ended only a few short hours before he died. He is buried in a small Catholic cemetery in Pekin and every Veterans Day his grave is marked with a fresh American flag.

Since that fateful day 91 years ago, millions of families from all over the world have experienced the pain that my grandmother's family felt upon hearing word of Lawrence's death. The twenty-first century was the bloodiest century in human history. The War to End All Wars obviously did not end warfare! World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the First Gulf War, Iraq, Afghanistan are only a small, incomplete list of wars that have been fought since WWI. Countless smaller wars between third world countries have raged killing millions more either through the violence of war or the tragic consequences of such armed conflict.

Today, we must pause and pay tribute to those who voluntarily put themselves in harms way to protect the freedoms that have been won for us over the years. Those who serve in the military do so with the knowledge that some day they may be called upon to give their "last full measure of devotion." They leave homes with wives and children and husbands counting the days till their return. These sacrifices effect us all whether we know a soldier who has gone to war or not. We are free because of their sacrifices. We have become strong through their efforts. We have become a nation that serves as a beacon of freedom and hope to an oppressed world. Without their service, we would never have been able to enjoy the kind of life we now have.

Yes, this nation has many ills. However, one of the most noble elements of this country is the United States Veteran. Through them we have become free and strong and have improved the lot of the world. Much revisionist history has been written over the years to distort many people's views of the American Veteran. Yet, one truth cannot be changed. Veterans of all generations have been heroes of freedom and sentinels overseeing our freedom. Thank you to all who have served this country in the military. Without you we could not have freedom!