Let’s not ever forget what they gave

I am an unabashed devotee of the Daily Show and the Colbert Report. Given the general tenor of the news nowadays, I figure why not get it with a bite of humor. At least it keeps me from wanting to run around my house screaming wordlessly at the top of my lungs.

Last week, the Colbert Report did two shows dedicated solely to troops returning from Iraq. The title, “Been There – Won That. The Amerification of the Ameri-Can-Do Troopscape”, belied the fact that the show had moments of exquisite poignancy and emotion.  The title also reminded me why his writers are people I would very much like to have as friends.

The first night of the show had only troops recently returned from Iraq in the audience; the second night, only vets. On one show, Vice President Joe Biden served hot dogs to the audience while scantily clad women served beer. Another night, a hunky guy in a hot dog suit performed a dance for the female vets while General Petraeus presented the Colbert Nation with a U.S. Army Freedom Team Salute, a certificate of appreciation for their outstanding contributions to the United States Army. Members of the Colbert Nation, of which I happily admit I’m one, could get their own framed certificate free by just downloading it, printing it our and putting it in a frame they already owned.  Such a deal!

There were many moments in these two nights of the show that touched me. There was the moment when Colbert interviewed two returning vets. One spent 15 months in Iraq. The other spent two weeks there before having both his legs blown off. He sat across from Colbert with two metal legs visible under the desk and spoke about how all any vet wanted was to be able to go home and resume their life and be accepted back into the community.

When Colbert asked why hiring a vet was a good idea, the soldier who’d spent 15 months in Iraq replied that when you hired a vet, you hired someone who knew how to work, knew how to show up no matter what the day might hold, knew how wonderful it was just being able to go to a job without fear.

But the moment that startled me most in how strongly it touched my emotions was each night as the show opened and the camera spanned the audience. I saw people just way too young to have seen or endured anything beyond a sprained ankle in a touch football pick up game over a 4th of July weekend.

When Vietnam was our war of choice, I was as young as the people fighting it. Now that I could be the grandmother of so many in the audience, I realize my attitude has dramatically changed. When we’re young, we feel invincible. Death can’t touch us. Now, I know differently. I wanted to throw my arms around them all and protect them from things that go bump in the night.

As tears filled my eyes I just kept thinking that they were all so young, too young for what some had already endured. And I once again thought we’d have a lot fewer wars in this world if the old men declaring them had to be in the first wave of soldiers facing the enemy and opening fire.

Vice President Biden spoke of having a son in the war and I had to wonder if, knowing his son might face enemy fire, caused him to think a little harder about any vote to go to war. I wondered if George Bush or Lyndon Johnson would have done what they did if they’d had children on the front line.

As you drive down the streets of Anchorage you frequently see old men holding signs that say, “Homeless Vietnam vet. Please help.”

Once, those homeless vets were my contemporaries, many filled with the same hopes and dreams we all shared about a bright future. Whatever happened to them in Vietnam, it took their dreams away and replaced them with nightmares.

And now we have another generation potentially faced with the same pain and diminished future.  As the war fades from the paper and TV news cycle, let’s not forget what these young people endured. It’s unlikely they will.