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By the time you are reading this, Thanksgiving will either be coming up very soon, or will have just recently passed. It has always been one of my favorite holidays.
In my house growing up, Thanksgiving was even more than Christmas, the holiday that my extended family used as an excuse to get together. So, while Christmas was Mom and Dad and my siblings, Thanksgiving was always a huge get-together with lots of family, food, football and naps.
And while Thanksgiving will always be an important holiday in the Mulvaney household, sometimes something happens that opens your eyes to other days that are, in their own way, just as important.
For me, that happened earlier this month on Veterans Day.
I will be perfectly honest with you. It was never a day that I celebrated, or even much recognized, until I started my current job. Yes, Veterans Day was a day we might do something at school or work to remember those who served, but mostly it was another three-day weekend.
No more. You cannot experience what I did earlier this month and not be changed by it.
It started on Thursday with Winfred McAteer. He’s a regular at the Bojangles in Lancaster. I met him several years ago and see him regularly.
He and my grandfather were on Saipan together in 1944 (although they didn’t know each other). I never heard any stories from my grandfather, who died when I was 9. But I do from Mr. McAteer. Those who know World War II vets will tell you, they are a unique and wonderful resource.
I then went over to Saluda Trail Middle School in Rock Hill. I met a woman there who had two lapel pins. I recognized one, a white field with a red border and two blue stars. I knew this meant she had two children serving overseas.
The other pin I had never seen before. It was the same red and white, but with a gold star. I had never met a Gold Star mother before, and it was overwhelmingly emotional for both of us. We talked about how she moved away from South Carolina for a while, but was now starting to put her life back together.
She talked a lot about the two children she still has overseas. She reminded me, in a way that probably nobody else could, that there is a difference between Veterans Day and Memorial Day – that this was the day to honor the living as well as the dead.
At St. Anne’s School in Rock Hill, I met a World War II vet who brought old black-and-white photographs of his time in Europe driving a tank with Patton’s Army. He showed the middle-schoolers pictures of blown-up bridges, bombed-out towns, and concentration camp furnaces. One young man asked if the vet “had lost any friends” in battle. The simple response of “yes” told more than any photograph.
Saturday night I went to the Marine Corps Ball, and watched as 89-year-old Martha Faris lightly complained to a Marine Major General about the evening.
“I was told to wear a gown this evening,” she said, “but I noticed every other Marine is wearing their uniform. I still have my uniform,” she told him, firmly. “And it still fits. You should’ve told me to wear it.”
The general, clearly caught off-guard by a woman who, though almost 90, was still very much a Marine, responded,
“Maybe you can wear your uniform next year.”
She shot back, “Well, I wasn’t planning on sticking around that long, but maybe now I will.”
Once a Marine, always a Marine, it seems.
There are many other stories – from Gaffney where I met a chaplain who volunteered right after 9/11, to Chester where we found two World War II vets who had not yet gone on an honor flight, to Fort Mill, where I found a Vietnam vet with severe PTSD wandering by the side of the road – so many that it is hard to imagine that they all happened on the same weekend. But they did.
But if one story sums up the weekend the best, it is something Col. Phil Williams (retired) from Lancaster said to a school group. I imagine his words have existed in some form for a long time, but I had never heard them before. For me, it summarizes everything about Veterans Day.
“It’s not the preacher who gives us the freedom of religion,” he said, “It is the soldier. It’s not the newspaper that gives us freedom of the press, it’s the soldier. And it isn’t the politician who gives us freedom of speech, it’s the soldier.”
On my way out I spoke briefly to a young man of about 10. I asked him if he had learned anything that day.
“I get to go to church because of what soldiers do,” he said.
I will never forget any of these stories, most especially as Thanksgiving comes, and it occurs to me that I probably have much, much more to be thankful for – and more people to be thankful to than I ever realized.
Thanks again to all who served.
Mick Mulvaney represents District 5 in the U.S. House Representatives.