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Posted: November 19, 2008 5:00 a.m.

Armistice Day, Veteran’s Day

 I'm thinking today how particularly grateful I am for veterans of the United States armed forces. We'll celebrate Veterans' Day, a legal holiday originally known as Armistice Day, the day after tomorrow. It's my fervent hope that every American will stop what they're doing and, in their own way, honor our veterans. You'd think the reason is blatantly obvious, but it's not. In my experience some folks still just don't get it; they apparently think that all this freedom and justice stuff came about by happenstance.
That is, if they think at all.
We're free because our veterans have kept us that way, and America is - present tense - the greatest nation on earth because our veterans have refused to let it be anything less than that, in even the darkest of hours.
 During World War II's "Battle of the Bulge" in the Ardennes, the 101st Airborne was surrounded by so many Nazi elements that the word "overwhelming" simply fails to convey the sheer hopelessness of their situation. The Germans, under a flag of truce, demanded an American surrender. General Anthony McAuliffe, commanding the 101st in the besieged town of Bastogne and realizing the strategic importance of his position, replied famously with one word: "Nuts!"
 Now, if you're bored, get a cup of coffee before you read on, please. If you're warm, comfortable, happy with the way the recent election turned out, and don't want to deal with the most important debt you owe, sit up and pay attention.
 During the 40 days from Dec. 16, 1944 through Jan. 25, 1945, in that region of France, Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany, the "Battle of the Bulge" played out in freezing, sometimes sub-zero weather. The men of the 101st lacked food, water, medical supplies, blankets and ammunition.
 Have you ever spent time outdoors in sub-zero weather? Have your feet ever frozen? With gangrene setting into your extremities, have you watched as the enemy steadily advanced on your position? Have you ever hunkered in a frozen hole in the ground with nothing but your love of country, thoughts of family, an M-1 and a few rounds of ammo by your side?
 No? I haven't either. But I've tried to imagine it. I've studied military history, have talked to men who put themselves in harm's way for me, and continue to cultivate the most complete appreciation of veterans this non-combatant can have.
 And what I know is this: American casualties in those 40 days totaled 84,323. Can you grasp that? Eighty-four thousand, three hundred and twenty-three sons, husbands, daddies, uncles, cousins, Huckleberry Finns and Tom Sawyers gave their all for you and for me under the worst of conditions.
 Some 19,276 were killed outright, as best can be determined. 23,554 went missing in action or were captured; 41,493 more were wounded.
 Those men made that sacrifice for us, for the triumph of democracy over despotism, and to advance the cause of right over wrong everywhere.
 Veterans come in all shapes and sizes, all ages and dispositions. Many years ago I met a man who, outwardly, seemed to be a little bit off. At times he was given to bizarre and somewhat frightening behavior; he would fire side arms at odd hours, shouting wildly while he did so.
 Discreet investigation revealed that the man had served as one of General Patton's lead tank drivers. He'd survived all the Third Army's European campaigns; his tank actually met Russia's Red Army at the Oder River, finalizing the "Battle of the Bulge."
 If these words mean nothing to you, please consider this.
 Patton's men drove Sherman tanks, which were quick, but thin-skinned, and mounting a pea-shooter 75mm gun. The 75 would literally bounce off the armor of a Nazi Panzer tank, while the 88mm gun of a Panzer would fireball a Sherman instantly.
 I think of that somewhat crazy old veteran about this time every year. I can't imagine what thoughts he endured driving his tin can full of gasoline and ammo, knowing that his end could come just around the next turn. What unspeakable things he saw firsthand; Shermans blazing like funeral pyres with men trapped inside them, ammo cooking off like fireworks.
 So I figure he earned the right to be a little crazy. My freedom came at the price of his normalcy.
 And I think of others, very different in their experiences and dispositions. A man named Bill Morris lives quietly here in Covington; for half a century now Bill has served the First United Methodist Church in many capacities and has placed the Holy Bible in many a hotel room through his work with The Gideons. Bill and his late twin brother landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944, and somehow made it all the way through that carnage and the European Theatre to V-E Day.
 A decade ago I coached a great bunch of kids at our local Indian Creek Middle School; the kids were undefeated region champions in the school's inaugural season. One of the guys I was privileged to coach was Matt Cooper. Well, as a member of the Georgia National Guard, Coop is now a veteran of the Iraq War. He was a hero on our football team back then, quietly anchoring the offensive line, and he's a hero now, having served the cause of freedom, putting himself in harm's way for our nation.
 I could go on, but hopefully by now you've gotten the point. Freedom is not free. Veterans have gone in harm's way to perpetrate this most precious, nearly ineffable zephyr for us all. We who live free are forever in their debt.
So, whatever else you plan on doing at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, please find a special time to honor American veterans of all wars, as President Dwight Eisenhower asked us to do on June 1, 1954, when he signed the bill changing Armistice Day to Veterans' Day.
In the spirit of President Gerald Ford's proclamation of Sept. 20, 1975, when he officially returned Veterans' Day to November 11:
"Make this a celebration to honor America's veterans for their patriotism, love of country, and willingness to serve and sacrifice for the common good."

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