One of my very first published articles appeared 23 years ago today in Stars and Stripes. I had actually sold it several months before, but the U.S. was in the midst of Desert Storm at the time, and the publication did not want to put an article with so solemn a theme in front of a lot of readers anxious about loved ones off at war. So they held on to it, and published it especially for Veterans' Day. I am proud of the fact that they thought so highly of it, and reserved it for a day special to everyone in the armed forces.
Verdun, City of Crosses (you can read it here in its original form), is about my first visit to Verdun, France, site of one of the fiercest battles of World War I. In this 100th year after the start of that terrible conflict, it seems fitting to share it again. The battle began in February 1916 and lasted months, claiming in the end nearly a million casualties. It was sobering to walk around the battlefield with its slender trees sprouting from myriad shell craters, to tour the museum, and to see the ossuary with its 130,000 never-to-be-identified skeletons resting underneath. Creepy, mournful, sad... There really aren't words for such an accumulation of death.
Just a few weeks later, I got my own taste of what it must have been like to fight there. Being in the Army at the time, stationed in Germany, I was accustomed to the yearly qualification requirements for personal weapons. That year, my company got stuck going to the rifle range in March. Now, March in Germany is not that pleasant, and that day was no exception. It was cold, rainy, windy, and there was mud everywhere. Mud, the scourge of the WWI doughboy.
Lying there atop a poncho that crackled with ice and did absolutely nothing to shield my shivering little self from the effects of lying in oozing slime that felt like it had been imported from Antarctica, I got an infinitesimal taste of what trench life must have been like during the war to end all wars. There were no lice, no rats, no snipers, no endless artillery shells dropping at random all over the range, but that mud... For three or four hours we took turns lying out there shivering, attempting to hit targets that seemed to swim out of our sights of their own accord, taunting us to quit shaking long enough to at least hit the damned paper. For once shooting in a gas mask didn't bother me, because at least it blocked the wind around my ears for a few minutes. When we got up, we were soaked, muddy, stiff with cold, and thoroughly, abysmally miserable. And that was only a few hours.
Imagine four years of it. If you survived that long. Not many made it through the whole war unscathed. And if they lived to go home, they never forgot the mud.
I am proud to be a veteran of the United States Army, but anything I went through during my service pales beside the daily misery of those who served in far harder circumstances. Desert heat, steaming jungles, arctic seas...day after day of acute discomfort, no sleep, constant tension...these are the lot of the men and women who serve in combat (and sometimes in peacetime), miseries quite apart from the fear of getting shot, or shelled, or blown up unexpectedly in your Humvee. I salute all of them who are now or who have ever served this country. Because of them, we all enjoy the freedom gifted to us when America was founded. May there always be more Americans willing to defend it than to tear it (and them) down.
Remember all those who have served on this day, and please, never forget those who never came home.