03_19_02 M Army 1 (copy)
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Martin Vazquez catches the American Flag before it touches the ground at Fort Carson on Tuesday March 19, 2002. Jay Janner/The Gazette

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Thank you.

Those are the words I spoke to a young veteran at the end of a flight from Denver to Seattle in 2005.

We spent the two hours talking about his journey to Iraq to serve in America’s invading forces. He had enlisted immediately after college.

He wanted, he said, to bring American ideals to Iraq. Now, back in his homeland, he was weary and discouraged. He wondered if America’s mission would find success. Iraq, he said, was a complicated mess.

But there was nothing complicated about his patriotism or his courage or his weighty idealism. He had, at enormous cost and risk, served his country.

We live in a time of division in America. That sentence always is true, but especially accurate in 2019. We struggle to agree, or even arrive close to agreeing, in political discussions. We squabble constantly. We plunge into name calling. A towering hero to one American is a disgraceful villain to another.

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But we must agree on offering respect and gratitude to those who served in our name while facing enemy fire overseas. On this July Fourth weekend, and every July Fourth, I give honor to those who served.

On that flight to Seattle, the young veteran talked in detail about the terror of combat and the intense camaraderie he formed with fellow soldiers. His was a gripping monologue.

His words brought me back to a family story I never heard.

My uncle faced the same level of terror in World War II, serving in North Africa and Italy. He had been raised in intense peace and quiet, living and working on a sprawling Texas farm. The family’s nearest neighbor was almost a mile away.

He was swept from the quiet to the deafening chaos of war. He served nobly, but I never heard him say a word about his fears or his sacrifice. My uncle did not speak about the war.

Ever.

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My mother was close to her brother. They talked about everything. But the conversation never arrived in Italy or North Africa. My uncle had seen death, over and over, and he was committed to leaving that carnage across the ocean.

A return last month to my old neighborhood in south Denver brought back memories of car rides in the early 1970s. At the time, teens didn’t gather around screens to play video games. We drove around and talked.

I was joined on many of those drives by Joe. Everyone else in the crowded car sported ridiculously long hair. Joe wore his hair short and slicked back.

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He had been taken as a teen from this neighborhood in the final days of the 1960s. He was drafted and sent to Vietnam, where he endured complicated and frightening combat. Where was the enemy? Who was the enemy? Joe was seldom sure.

Joe didn’t talk much, but he sometimes took us with him back to Vietnam. These trips were emotional for Joe.

Most of us in the car were in junior high, and we were not the most respectful collection of humanity. We enjoyed mocking others.

But we never mocked Joe, either to his face or behind his back. We listened intently. We realized he had survived a level of danger we could barely comprehend.

I knew what I wanted to say to Joe, but I was a kid and never quite found the required bold voice.

So I’ll say it now, to Joe and my uncle and every other combat veteran:

Thank you.

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