The gate agent announced to the passengers waiting to board it was my last flight through Fairbanks. While reviewing the flight paperwork, a gentleman approached, wanting to shake my hand, and wish me well in the upcoming retirement.
He was short, tan and fit looking. Across the front of his baseball cap it said, “World War II Vet.” He was 94. We chatted. He flew a B-17 bomber in Italy during the war. I quickly did the math. That would have made him 23 or 24. He would have been the “old man” on the airplane.
This summer I’ve been sharing war stories about those young flight crews serving in Europe, and the sacrifices they made. I’ve been volunteering as a pilot-docent on “Aluminum Overcast,” the Experimental Aircraft Association’s B-17 – a four-engine bomber known as the Flying Fortress.
I had the honor of talking with some of the surviving crew members. They may move a bit slower, (haven’t met one without a hearing aid) but they all remember. The missions, the excitement, the fear, the 0300 briefs, the bad eggs at breakfast, and the plane that brought them home safely.
Now, some 70 years later, we refer to those that served in WWII as the “Greatest Generation”. They were. Why did it take us so long to realize that?
Today’s military personnel? We haven’t labeled them yet. They’re just young men and women doing a job. The equipment has changed. Now it’s Blackhawks, C-17s, F-22s, and a variety of other sophisticated military equipment.
Our Alaskan soldiers are out there protecting our freedoms and striving to gain freedoms for others less fortunate. Some wear the uniform daily and others serve as Guardsmen, or citizen soldiers. They leave loved ones behind and deploy to Afghanistan.
Family members left behind sacrifice. Alone they cope with the daily crisis, be it a simple flat tire or a devastating car wreck. Parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and other extended family members are doing whatever they can to encourage and support. During deployments the nightly news is cautiously watched.
The threats today may be different than the B-17 crews experienced but the potential outcome is the same. Losing body parts from German flak or by driving across an IED in Afghanistan has the same result – a changed life.
It’s not only an enemy threat – but dare I say it – our own military too. Non-combat losses in the B-17 were as bad as the combat losses. Midairs, training accidents, equipment failures, and weather, all contributed significantly. We may have the best military in the world but our troops today still have to deal with training mistakes, bad equipment and sometimes less than stellar political/military decisions. Yet, they are still willing to serve and protect.
Names and faces of those Alaskans I have known who paid with the ultimate sacrifice are popping into my head. Remembering is good but I wish I didn’t have to – I wish they were still here getting old enough to someday earn their own respectful “generation nickname”.
So when you see them, the Greatest Generation, or those now serving – Stop. Take a moment – say thanks. When you see their families, parents, grandparents at Costco – Stop and say thanks. It doesn’t have to be Veteran’s Day and they don’t have to be grey haired vets.