A veteran of World War II, he served in the Pacific Theater of Operations, eventually arriving in Okinawa, Japan, as thousands of troops did, just before the Enola Gay would drop her well-kept secret on Hiroshima. Having fought unimaginably hard to help take strategically important islands and atolls he bore witness to barbary which only mankind could unleash upon one another. He watched men die all around him.
Some sixty years later he would be traveling through Payson, Arizona, and encounter a group of youths entirely discourteous and disrespectful to those around them—assuredly a clash of generations but a bitter reminder of how faded our thoughts have become concerning those men who fought to bring wrong to right.
Mr. DeMayo would later show his daughter something he wrote down shortly after that encounter: “Before I went to combat I found a reason for putting my life on the line—to preserve the next generation. Had I known what their character was going to be, I would not have been nearly so eager to put myself in harm’s way.”
This had bothered me for quite some time. My father had served in Europe (as I note below), and yet I have never probed about his war experience. I do know he had no love of Paris at that time, but I won’t repeat his description of it here as it was a long time ago and likely not indicative of Paris today. But Mr. DeMayo’s words resonated with me, and not in a pleasant way.
When my son and I go to a ball game and the national anthem is played—I get choked up most every time. I stand and applaud with thousands of others each time they recognize men and women who are currently in service to our country—and yet that is pitifully short of proper gratitude for what they sacrifice; it is wholly shameful to my father, grandfathers, Mr. DeMayo, and every other soul who has worn the stars-and-stripes on their shoulder. I felt like I needed to let this man, my father, and posthumously, my grandfathers know that while we are an almost disgracefully quiet majority we indeed value and are deeply grateful for what they have done for us and our beloved country.
I assure you, we vastly outnumber the reckless, disrespectful few.
Below is the letter I wrote to Mr. DeMayo, now 85-years-old. It is perhaps a small whisper amid the din of everything else in our lives . . . but it is heartfelt.
If Hell is, as philosophically defined, the impossibility to reason, then war is the horrific struggle to bring logic to chaos, to try and strike a noble balance between the casualty of misguided power and the just cause of Natural Rights.
Mothers lose their sons and daughters; children their mothers and fathers. In answer to any question of rectitude of man’s nature one must fully consider the sacrifice, the indescribable purging of soul and spirit both sides of the familial unit endure. Is the greater iniquity that of loss to families, or to that of a higher cause if all ideals are dissolved for more transient, impermanent matters?
My father and both grandfathers served during World War II: dad in Europe in a support capacity with the Army, and both grandparents as airmen who flew over the coast of Normandy on D-Day. I know precious little about my father’s military stint outside his old tattoo and Army-issue rifle. I knew nothing of my grandfathers’ participation in the invasion until well after they both passed. None of these men spoke of war with us. I would bet that had we asked, once adjudged to be of proper age, they would have answered each and every question, however sparingly.
Neither I nor my brother has served in the military. This fact, I certify, does nothing to diminish our consummate respect for those who have served. My approbation and heartfelt gratitude extend to all who have answered their nation’s call to duty. Sadly, I know there are people bold—and egregiously wrong enough—to call themselves citizens, who detest or ostracize those who served on their very behalf. To marginalize any man or woman who has served, in any capacity, in any conflict, is surely a moral stain, a melancholic blight, an act of untenable turpitude.
To the degree which our children are inoculated against these conflicts is an indication that we, as a collective, are blithely willing to let them repeat the same mistakes, to declare the value of history as a zero sum, and to inflict dishonor upon those who participated—in short, an act of impersonal despotism.
On December 4, 1776, the man who penned Common Sense, a pamphlet which arguably lit a tinderbox of patriotic passion under an increasingly lethargic colonial population, published his follow-up, The Crisis. With the patchwork army badly dispirited, haggard, and ailing, and after a solid string of defeats since the prior August, Loyalists were all but rejoicing the ultimate demise of independence; once stalwart patriots were absconding to the British side in droves; the public sentiment toward the cause as a whole had taken on the figurative stench and staleness of a rotting carcass. Just across the Delaware river, opposite Trenton, New Jersey, the exhausted army scattered into several encampments as a brutal winter begun to settle in. Enlistments were expiring for almost half the soldiers and more were deserting every day. Thomas Paine, in concert with a stirring, impassioned plea from Gen. George Washington, managed to help rekindle the barely glowing ember of patriotism and respect for the men, and restore faith and vigor amidst a dubious public. His essay started with the most appropriate statement of gravitas:
THESE are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.
My point to all this, Mr. DeMayo, is that while I understand your incisive resentment regarding post-war sentiment of returning vets, I am bothered, moreover, moved to declare, with the utmost urgency and exertion, that I am not one of the pathetically oblique. As surely as Providence guides my heart I can attest that I am not singular, but rather representative of millions who are equal in my discernment—proof exists not in me alone, but in your venerable daughter as well.
I cannot, with any imaginable veracity, begin to comprehend the horrors you have experienced at the nadir of humanity’s violence and Death’s remorseless culling. I have seen grass die and leaves fall; I have witnessed the quiet passing of my grandmother; but I have never known the adrenalized anguish of comrades and friends falling in the wake of God’s own thunder. I cannot conceive the encumbrance of such demons, resolved to claw at my soul and tatter my dreams until my last breath. Such corruption of hope and splintering of faith in man can only be assuaged by our better angels, but only if we are receptive to them.
I genuinely respect your opinion, Mr. DeMayo, and will—as your daughter would attest—fight with every and any gift in my arsenal for your deserved right, your suitably justified prerogative to hold fast to your convictions, regardless of my perspective. Most importantly I owe you, my father and grandparents, and every man who served with you, a debt I could never possibly repay.
It may be impossible to mend the hearts of those put in harm’s way, but it is entirely proper and fitting that we should—if I may step into Lincoln’s words for a moment—take increased devotion to that cause, to those soldiers, who gave their last full measure of devotion for our mutual benefit. It is, indeed, far above my poor power to add or detract to the atrocities you and other veterans have suffered.
My work here is arrived at a most sincere, if deficient conclusion: Thank you for your service, sir. My benediction is delivered as not just any obtuse citizen, but as a grateful American.