Veterans who continue to serve

  • Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. Carl Engwall
  • 28th Maintenance Squadron superintendent
November is upon us, and as you read this article we will have already celebrated Veterans Day, a holiday which commemorates our Airmen, Marines, Soldiers and Sailors who have served this great nation.

According to the Wikipedia Encyclopedia, after the American Revolution the term veteran "came to be associated specifically with a former soldier of old age who had fought for independence." As time passed, the word veteran was used to describe "any former member of the armed forces or a person who had served in the military." My intention, though, is not to give a history lesson, but to share with you veterans whom I'm very proud of and who have helped influence my life.

My great uncle, Henry, was one of the soldiers who landed on Omaha Beach as part of the 463rd Ordinance Evacuation Company. In 1987, in the kitchen of my great aunt's home, I had the honor to hear my Uncle Henry's personal account of the infamous D-Day invasion on Omaha Beach. Several family members and I were drinking coffee when Uncle Henry looked at me and said, "So, I hear you're in the Air Force." I replied, "Yes, I am," and for the next two hours he shared the story, which had been locked inside him for more than 40 years.

He told us about the boat ride across the English Channel, how they miscalculated the swiftness of the tide, how many of his friends drowned and how they were fired upon by German snipers who were safely nestled in the cliffs overlooking Omaha Beach. Despite all of this, his company kept moving forward, and by the end of the day, Uncle Henry was one of only three in his entire company still alive. He joined up with another company and eventually headed to Bastogne, for yet another battle.

All of us in the room were in awe of what we were hearing, trying to capture every word and every expression as Henry recalled the tragedies of war. Uncle Henry's younger sister later commented to me it was the first time she had ever heard Henry talk about the war.

A few years later Uncle Henry passed away. I'll always cherish the precious memory of his great sacrifice and his humility. Henry was awarded several medals during his three years overseas, but coming home alive to his mom and sisters was most important to him. You see, Henry's father never knew if his son ever returned safely, because he died while Henry was fighting overseas. Uncle Henry counted himself blessed to return home after the war, knowing thousands of others did not. He never expected any rewards, special honors or favors. This quiet, soft-spoken soldier simply returned to the labor force doing what he enjoyed most - fixing cars.

Another veteran I have come to admire is my neighbor Gene. Gene served in the Army as an infantry solider. In 1953 he left his Iowa farm and was sent to Korea, near the Demilitarized Zone. As I talked to Gene about his Korea tour, his humble spirit shined, knowing he was doing what his nation asked of him. In my opinion, Gene's continual service to his country after his return to America deserves even further notable recognition.

Gene now serves in various capacities in the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, participating in honor guard details, serving meals and volunteering at the sheriff's department, helping to make our schools and public places safer. He has sacrificed thousands of hours over a half century, giving back to our community and our country. He is an American patriot who has one of the biggest hearts of service you will ever see. He exemplifies what President John F. Kennedy said in 1961 during his Inaugural Address, "Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country."

As a 29-year Air Force member, I believe our military uniquely cultivates in its all-volunteer force a deep sense of commitment, sacrifice and service to our society and our American way of life. This commitment to our great nation must continue even after retirement. I'm personally thankful for the veterans who served before me; we must carry on this legacy of serving those who served before us.