The Greatest Generation
Last week I was walking through Concourse B at Midway Airport in Chicago and saw in the distance a Navy platoon waiting at a Southwest gate. As I got closer I saw a military pipe and drum band, a tunnel of people holding several dozen American flags and hundreds of travelers who had stopped and joined in with anticipation for whoever it was that was about to come off of the plane.
I started asking people around me if they knew what was going on and heard different answers:
“It’s a group of soldiers who have been deployed.”
“I think it’s some POWs finally coming home.”
”It’s new recruits headed to bootcamp at Naval Station Great Lakes.”
“I heard it was a five-star general.”
Finally, and with military precision, the band began to play as the platoon of sailors started a thunderous roar of cheers and chants. And then, one by one, a group of World War II veterans, all over 90 years old and most of them in wheelchairs, began their journey down this corridor of celebration as every man and woman in uniform saluted them. The crowd stepped through the line to shake their hands and thank them for their service. It was overwhelming. People were cheering, clapping, whistling. Tears were shed. Gratitude expressed. Honor was given.
If you don’t know, the Honor Flight is a day-trip for veterans to Washington DC to visit those memorials dedicated to honor the service and sacrifices of themselves and their friends. The non-profit behind this has raised enough money to offer this experience to almost a quarter million veterans for free since 2005 with another 38,000 on waiting lists.
I flashed back to the day my Dad went on an Honor Flight several years ago. At the time he was 87 and left on a 7am flight from Nashville and returned at 8pm that same day. While exhausted from a long day in DC, his smile in this picture represents the overwhelming joy and honor he experienced. His only frustration from the day was the lanyard they made him wear said Navy on it and dad was a proud member of the U.S. Coast Guard (or the “knee-high Navy” as his five brothers called it!)
The phrase “the greatest generation” was coined by Tom Brokaw in his book by the same name. His book describes those who grew up during the Great Depression and fought in World War II. Throughout his book, Brokaw describes this generation with words like responsibility, humility, discipline, loyalty and courage. While certainly not perfect men and women, they paved the way for the freedom, opportunities and life that we enjoy. And they paved it by sacrificing so much. As Brokaw says in his book, “These men and women came of age in the Great Depression, when economic despair hovered over the land like a plague. They had watched their parents lose their businesses, their farms, their jobs, their hopes. They had learned to accept a future that played out one day at time. Then, just as there was a glimmer of economic recovery, war exploded across Europe and Asia … they gave up their place on the assembly lines in Detroit and in the ranks of Wall Street, they quit school or went from cap and gown directly into uniform.”
As Americans, our history is rich and no generation has done more than this great group of men and women. Their numbers are few. Most of them have passed from this life. Moments like I experienced in the airport remind me to not miss an opportunity to “give honor to whom honor is due” as Paul says in the New Testament.
And those men and women, who courageously fought for our freedom, are worthy of honor.