In 2018 I turned 50 years old. To some the age is a mile marker met with some dread and apprehension. I saw it as an accomplishment. But there was also a certain amount of reflection, which is probably normal. There is an endless list of clichés about getting older, especially reaching 50.
During the season of reflection I found myself regretting some decisions in my life. I reflected on missed chances, roads not taken, on what might have been if different choices were made. An uncle once passed on to me an important insight to getting older and making decisions.
“Make your choices and live with them. It will make you crazy if you think about ‘What if ...,’” he said. After a life lived, the words don’t sound earth-shattering, but when I was in my 20s, I thought they were gold. The advice has served me well through the years, especially when I was at a crossroads.
As I’ve gotten older, one of my regrets has been not joining the military out of high school. There are a lot of reasons why I didn’t. In hindsight none are very good. I simply didn’t, and I have a certain amount of remorse. Some of my relatives are veterans, an uncle is a Purple Heart recipient, but we are not a military family.
Lately my wife and I have been watching the Ken Burns Series on the Vietnam War. I read about the series when it came out but had been avoiding watching it. I wasn’t sure why, but I had a disquieting feeling about viewing the show. I know about the war, have read books and talked with some who were there. But something kept gnawing at me about this particular series.
One night as we were watching an installment, a feeling of self-awareness came over me. I’ve always respected those who serve in the military. I hold their sacrifice, and the sacrifices of their families, in deep reverence, and they deserve the utmost respect. But as the screen showed young men, their faces etched with fear and dread, fighting every day for survival, I felt wholly inadequate and almost ashamed. The stares of those men seemed to look at me through the screen and the years to ask, “What is your excuse?”
Obviously the Vietnam War is not the war I was going to have to make a decision about. By the time I turned 18, the draft was over, and our country was at peace. But every day men and women (some might say boys and girls) make a decision to serve our country.
Around Veterans Day and Memorial Day, we correctly focus on sacrifice, military service and honoring those who serve. But do we take the time to listen and fully understand the weight of those words? Do we truly appreciate the burden of the decision those individuals have made and are making? If we don’t, the more important question is why?
Every year Winfield Rotary Club puts out flags in the community on five appointed days. For a contribution, Winfield residents can have a flag put in their yard on Memorial Day, Flag Day, July 4, Labor Day and Veterans Day. We put them up before sunrise and take them down before sunset. Currently there are about 50 flags on about 10 routes, so it is a considerable task. But never once does anyone complain.
I jumped at the chance to put the flags up when I first became a Rotarian several years ago. One of the great aspects of living in a small town is the respect still given to the flag. When the flag goes up or passes by, the men still take off their hats and we all get quiet and still.
In 2019 it seemed there was some residual effects of my season of reflection in 2018. Or maybe it was the Ken Burns series affecting me, but this year when I put up the flags or took them down, there seemed to be a deeper meaning. The task seemed more somber, more reverent.
This past Veterans Day was vicious in Winfield. The wind was brutal, and the temperatures dropped with the wind chills. But the Winfield Rotary Club never missed a beat, and we took care of the flags.
As the holidays approach, I think about the Ken Burns series and military service. I think about the men who served and died in that war, names I will never know. But there are also the ones I do know and those who served other places. There’s my Uncle Rick, who has a Purple Heart and a scar to remind him of 1967. My father-in-law Kenneth also served there. Several uncles, who have passed, also served in far off wars. Uncle Dean served as a medic in Korea. Uncle Jack marched across Europe with General Patton, and his brother Ray worked on airplanes in England.
I’m not equating a Rotary flag project with military service. But each time those flags go up and come down, I take a moment to reflect on the cost for the privilege to do it. My name will never be on a wall, but I do hope someone somewhere hears me when I handle that flag and whispers “Thank you.”
President, Winfield Rotary Club