Sunday, November 11, 2012

This is a repeat in honor of Veteran's Day. I dedicate this essay to my friend, Jeffery Martinez, who saw action in Iraq and has since etired from the Navy.



Come Veteran's Day, I am a mess. When the San Jose Eagle Scouts' Color Guard begins its slow march east on Santa Clara Street to the foothills, I am already choking back hard sobs. Several lovingly-restored vintage military vehicles join the procession, where only an hour before, G.I. buffs had shown all the cool equipment to my kids. They even let them climb onto the tanks and into the ancient ambulances - "that's a litter, son, not a bed," they solemnly explained. Now they roll by, and their ramrod straight backs tell you everything you need to know about their pride.

Today, we honor those who have risked their lives for our liberty. It is because of their dedication that we are not forced to show  loyalty to a tyrant or a distant sovereign. Today, we pay tribute to the men and women who have risked everything to defend a Constitution where each of us is considered American, regardless of their political opinions, religious beliefs or ethnic origin. Today we take the time to thank them.

Slowly, open air convertibles roll by with city officials waving from the back seat; groups like Rotary and Eagles and Moose make their appearances as well. But I'm here, like so many others in this flag-crazed crowd lining the street to see The Show. That's right: the vets themselves. Here, in the shadow of high-rise buildings representing high-tech creativity, march the men and women who guaranteed that those industries could thrive in safety.

And leading the way, marching proudly, are vets of World War I, bless them, maybe for the last time. Here come the Nissei warriors, Japanese-Americans who fought hard in Europe and liberated death camps even as their families were interned at home. Here are the Negro Unit Veterans, who, even after fighting for their country, were still not allowed to swim in public pools in the South - but Nazi POWs there were welcomed. Then come the Philipino troops who bravely fought alongside the Americans in the Pacific. Bravely marching by now are the Korean War. Veterans of the Viet Nam war, once vilified upon their return home, now hold their heads high, waving, and one of them smiles and waves back.

"God bless you!" I manage to call out through my constricted throat, "Gam san nida!" - that's Korean for "thank you," if I remember my M*A*S*H reruns correctly. Okay, they're not Korean themselves, but I am moved by the spirit to thank them as many ways as I know how. The polite but firm mounted officer has to remind me three times to stay back, ma'am. I am flailing my arms, a one-woman welcoming committee. Tears are streaming down my face, and my kids are doing their best to ignore their overwrought mama as they throw down loud "poppers" they bought from a sidewalk vendor for fifty cents.

The crowd greets all the veterans enthusiastically. The vets are beaming. It's great to be here at home, we all seem to be saying to each other. Yes, this flag we now wave madly or bear majestically has flown over some things we wish it hadn't, things like segregation, political corruption,  lynchings, the internment of Japanese-Americans.

And yet . . .

And yet, each one of the vets, each of us waving from the sidewalks - we all seem to understand that this flag stands for some things greater than all of us put together. We all share the belief that people have the right to taste the sweetness of freedom. That wrongdoers and bigots and crooked politicians will have to answer for their actions. That we all benefit from justice. That being able to work hard and make something of oneself, regardless of one's status, is a freedom worth fighting for. That it's crucial to one's soul to be able to wear a yarmulke,  or pray the rosary, or worship freely. That it's vital to one's heart to be able to express oneself as an artist, or write a controversial novel, or even join a group of fellow Pomeranian fanciers, without government interference. For this American mom, that means everything.

So on the vets march, past billboards printed in English and Spanish and Vietnamese and Tagalog. I wish that whoever has opposes us could experience what we're feeling today. I wish they could understand that Veteran's Day is not a gloating show of military strength as it is in totalitarian regimes. It's not there to glorify an enemy's defeat. There are no displays of might, no weapons shaken in the air or fired as a challenge to future threats. It's not a celebration of our imperialistic intentions, or whatever it is they're accusing us of this week.

What it is, is simply pride in making a stand for something so simple yet so precious: a safe place for anyone who dares to dream.

What it is, is simply our home, the United States of America.