Recently American Legion magazine took a poll of its readers to determine the 100 most beloved veterans of all time, and it had arrived just a couple of days before our interview. Some were completely predictable, such as Audie Murphy, Sgt Alvin York, Robert E. Lee, Ike, Patton and Dorie Miller, the cook who took to a .50 cal at Pearl Harbor and fought off the enemy. I knew actor Jimmy Stewart served in WWII, as did many actors, but I didn’t know he was a Major General at the end of his Air Force Reserve career.
The Four Chaplains gave up their life jackets in 1943 so that other crew members of the Dorchester would not enter a watery grave, Navy SEALS Mike Murphy and Chris Kyle were legendary, each in their own right, and I actually learned something about JFK. While I knew he had served in WWII aboard PT 109, I didn’t know the boat was cut in two, and that his back injury came about as a result of carrying a badly burned fellow sailor through the water with a strap in his teeth. We went through each one honored in the poll, learning new things and filling in blanks for each other. Then Mayor Marks looked at me and said, “What does all this mean to a young person?” Then he continued, “You know, I don’t talk about Vietnam very much.” “I know,” I replied.
I thought for a moment about the fact that this year’s Mayor’s Youth Commission has a record 87 kids in it, and added, “Maybe it’s time you did talk about it, and tell the kids.” “Maybe so,” he said.
He went on to ask a few more rhetorical questions as he pondered the importance both of Veterans’ Day in general, and “telling the story” to kids who have grown up in a level of peace and prosperity that has never been experienced by any culture in any time period. “Why would a young person thank an old guy in a wheel chair?” “What are we doing to stay free?” And, more importantly, “What are we teaching our kids about staying free?” Our interview was just after the Jackie Greenhaw Production of “Vietnam: More Than Just A Name,” which was a sellout and an undisputed success. Many, including me, shed tears, and I was so very glad that ‘Nam vets in our area were finally getting the recognition they deserve.
In general, Mayor Ronnie thinks “We’ve watered down the importance of thanking vets,” and I know he wasn’t just saying that because he served in Vietnam. That same week I talked to a ‘Nam vet who was told to make sure he was not in uniform when he got off the plane to come home at last. Once again, I was reminded that the disgraceful disregard for the sacrifice of those who fought Communism in Vietnam was because of people who were like me in “another lifetime.” Thankfully we serve the God of second chances.
“We don’t have to have someone mangled and permanently disabled to understand freedom,” Mayor Ronnie said. And then, as he always does, he brought the lessons learned home to our beloved Athens. “It all has to do with building a strong community, strengthening family and faith, and honoring all those who protect us,” he added. He then mentioned that he hoped there would be a strong turnout for the Veterans’ Day Parade on November 8th, and I agreed. Then we prayed, off we went, and that’s truly what makes Ronnie roll.
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner