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In honor of all veterans on Veterans Day, 11-11-11

At precisely 11 AM on November 11, 2011, a wreath will be laid at the tomb of the Unknowns, followed by a parade of colors by veterans’ organizations and remarks from dignitaries, held in the Memorial Amphitheater.  It is a day to set aside time to thank all who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces.

Earlier on October 19, 2011, unassuming, good ole Indiana Hoosiers started showing their gratitude for a special group of veterans and in so doing, made history – again.

The first time Hoosiers led the pack in writing history was May 19.  Dave Shively of Lafayette, Indiana, bore witness to his dream come true:  a Lafayette highway bridge was dedicated to all Medal of Honor recipients, with seven of these astounding men in attendance to cut the ribbon.  It was the first bridge in the nation to be so dedicated to all recipients.

The second bridge to honor all Medal of Honor recipients was dedicated on October 19.  This time in Indianapolis, and not too far from the Medal of Honor Memorial, also the first of its kind in the country (thanks to the efforts of John Hodowal and the IPL company).  This newly dedicated Medal of Honor Bridge is right next door to the well-respected Richard L. Roudebush Veterans Affairs Medical Center (VAMC), on 10th Street.  Eight Medal of Honor recipients attended the event, including Harold (Hal) A. Fritz, a Vietnam veteran who has recently assumed the presidency of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.

I had an opportunity to chat with Mr. Fritz after the special luncheon held in honor of the recipients.  Mr. Fritz graciously insisted I call him Hal.  I did, but I really wanted to say, “Mr. Hero.”

The Medal of Honor recipient was easy-going and gracious.  Having multiple veterans as friends and working with various associations and publications in their honor, the first thought that came to my mind and I carelessly blurted out was, “Do you sleep at night?”  Hal’s eyes took on the thousand mile stare and I wisely jumped back and asked him what it was he wanted people to know.  Would he mind just telling me what was important to him?

Hal gently touched the magnificent medal that was hanging around his neck.  Its pale blue ribbon with stars and the star-shaped medal is extremely humbling viewed up close, one can only imagine what it must be like to actually wear it.  It was a symbol of other things, he remarked, and marveled at the changes wearing the Medal creates in the life of its recipient.  Suddenly, you are a very public person; but that’s okay, he assured me. The Medal makes you an ambassador for your country, and all recipients accept that with great humility.

He shared his time living in Germany when he and his wife wanted to show respect to their neighbors by recognizing what was important to them.  They had noticed how the lawns were always tidy, and how window boxes were everywhere.  He and his wife tidied and planted and set about other ways of showing respect.  They happily got acquainted with their neighbors. One night during socializing, Hal was surprised when his neighbor raised a toast to the United States, the road systems, and the marvel of traveling from one climate to another while remaining in the United States.

The toast was a true testament to our freedoms.  Not just our right to speak our minds, but the freedom to just go and visit our family or friends, without permission from anyone in uniform; to travel from state to state without any military police stopping you along the way.  Appreciating that freedom and those who defend it is first and foremost.  All the recipients of the Medal of Honor speak with  great admiration for our current military and those who serve because they choose to protect our freedom, to volunteer for serving our county.  They go into it understanding what sacrifices they may have to make, and this makes them truly courageous and equally true heroes.  But our military are not the only heroes, Hal added.  The military is not separate from humanity.

To Hal, The Medal of Honor does not distinguish him from others, but connects him.  It is a medal of honor, but also a medal of unity.  It unifies him, he said, to all the other heroes in life.  He spoke with great respect about teachers and how they are guideposts to help people fulfill their roles in life, to learn to appreciate all the good that exists, and to strive to contribute to the greater whole.  He spoke of those who work hard on every level of life and do their best, day after day.  They, too, he says, have tapped into that greatness that is within all of us, that bit of spark that makes most of us quiet heroes, but heroes nonetheless.   We all have greatness within, he asserts.  All we have to do is tap into it.

In his upcoming two years as President of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, he will  focus on establishing a museum that holds all that is associated with honoring the Medal of Honor.   He acknowledged the splendid contributions of memorials to the Medal of Honor (MOH) recipients, including a great appreciation for the memorial in Indy, but made a distinction between memorials and museums.   The museum would be a place to hold all the memorabilia and items that have been collected over the years by the MOH recipients.  His desire for a museum is not just to showcase the items, but to continue the legacy of the Medal itself.  With most MOH recipients growing older and few young recipients, the legacy is in danger of losing its continuity.  A museum would help sustain its history and what it symbolizes, and be a message of inspiration to all generations to come.

Hal spoke of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but not in a way I ever heard before.  First officially diagnosed with Vietnam veterans decades after the Vietnam War, PTSD is a constant companion to many of our surviving vets.  Hal did not dispute that or its terrible impact upon a veteran’s life.  Yet his face took on a glow of pride when he mentioned our younger veterans.  His voice was full of emotion when he spoke of what the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have gone through.  There they were, he said in an awed voice, no legs, an arm shattered, skull repaired…and still full of life and wanting to get back into society as a solid, contributing citizen.  He shook his head slightly as he spoke of Vietnam veterans who have health issues themselves, but nothing in comparison to what our current combat vets are facing.  His eyes sparkled with pride when he spoke of how humbling but inspiring it is to the older veterans.  Hal, a Vietnam veteran himself, said that the younger combat vets are motivating his generation of veterans into appreciating what they have and feeling grateful.  The PTSD burden the Vietnam veterans carry is decidedly lightened by the sheer raw courage and strength of the Iraq and Afghanistan combat veterans.

The Indianapolis bridge and the Lafayette bridge that came before it, may be dedicated specifically to the Medal of Honor recipients, but to Hal, it is a part of the larger whole.  Of one generation of veterans helping another; one generation of humanity helping those who came before, and no doubt, those who will come after.  Perhaps, too, one kind of hero reaching out to the hero in all of us.

On this Veterans Day, 2011, may all our veterans…and those they had to leave behind…stand tall with the recipients of the Medal of Honor.  May they all know that these bridges dedicated to this special group of hero, is a shared span of greatness that lives within us all.

Thank you, Hal, for your time, your graciousness and your wisdom.  I am glad you made it back.

He never did tell me if he slept at night.