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Veterans Day, 2009

 I was a greeter for the U’s Veterans Day celebration last week. My charge was to welcome honorees at a luncheon after the ceremony, but I went a little early to get oriented and had time to watch the action from the sidelines of the Union Ballroom.

It was a full house. On hand were friends and relatives of the honorees, professors, military personnel (including the U’s ROTC cadets), students, veterans from past years, and University staff.

Each honoree’s story was read aloud to the audience. In addition, the stories with photos of the men were reproduced in a brochure and on posters that lined the concourse next to the ballroom. Taken when they enlisted, the photos reminded us that the oldsters on stage were once terribly young, with their whole lives ahead of them.

 The stories were sent in by friends or relatives who hoped their loved one would be recognized. Much of what was told defies comprehension. Suffering, loss, courage, death-defying bravery, torture—it was all there on stage, as was the living proof that we can be shattered and still come out to tell stories and have a nice meal.    

 When the last tribute was read, a bugler played taps. The audience rose and, in the wings, we covered our hearts. All American wars, all soldiers are summoned by this music. Here was WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq. And here too was the specter of a young woman dying today in Afghanistan. She was as young as the girl I saw napping, probably between classes, on a sofa across from the ballroom.  

 Then, loaded by young cadets working quickly in a cramped space on the Union lawn the cannons fired again and again, delivering a one syllable punch that shook windows, stopped passersby in their tracks, and sent out billows of smoke that caught in the trees.   

 It was Veterans Day, November 11, 2009.  A coworker turned away with tears in her eyes. A University official bowed to slip a ribbon over the head of an old man in a wheelchair. I went to greet the honorees, some of whom arrived slowly on the arms of cadets, delivered again.