The Private Citizen / "Memorial Day 2010"
Memorial Day is just around the corner, again. It has come to mark the beginning of summer -- cookouts, cool drinks, beach sand spilling out of the pages of long books -- but the holiday stands for something in its own right, too. Properly speaking, it commemorates those who lost their lives in the nation's wars and it is Veterans' Day that honors those who served and survived, but the commemorating must be done by the living and so we mix the two. We go to parades and wave flags, and it is right and proper that we do these things. I sometimes wonder if this is enough.
Veterans have been in the news lately. Monday night I went to a Town Planning & Zoning (TPZ) meeting in Bridgeport: Homes for the Brave wants to buy and renovate a 100-year-old house on Clinton Avenue, to house homeless female veterans. One estimate is that there are about 400 women in that category in Connecticut alone, and no facility. It is a big house, and we can provide for about 17 honorably discharged, homeless women veterans.
It is a good plan, and in my opinion a good application, but predictably, it has drawn opposition from some of the immediate neighbors. They feel threatened, as Fairfielders do when new things come to our own neighborhoods. Its central location has made Bridgeport the home of many institutions that support the region but don't provide much benefit, or tax revenue, to the city itself: four court houses, a jail, two hospitals, a university, an alphabet of social service agencies, and by one resident's count, at least 40 group homes already, it adds up. A minor metropolitan daily editorialized against us: worthy project, wrong neighborhood, it said, as if it had a better idea. A dismaying number of speakers felt the need to intone the words, "we love veterans," which was invariably followed by a "but." There were supporters, too, a parade of them: old veterans, young service people and veterans, at least three of them women, all of them eloquent and all of them residing in the city. There may be a decision in a couple of weeks. I am hopeful.
Prior military service dominated the coverage of the state political conventions, too. That was just last week, but it seems like it's gone on forever. In a nutshell, one candidate was accused of embellishing his record; he has been accurate about it at least 99 percent of the time. It will come down to whether the voters will cut him some slack. A second candidate took credit for feeding the story to the Times. And a third candidate, who actually did serve in Vietnam, is out of the running. But it isn't about either candidate's "war record", as it quaintly used to be called: bear in the mind that each of the last five presidential elections would have turned out differently if that was uppermost in the voters' minds. Politics is too often about what people say, and not about what they do.
There is a new generation of veterans that includes my new son-in-law (and when he returns, my son). Last fall I met Paul Rieckhoff, who led a platoon in Iraq in 2003, brought all 38 of his men back alive and most of them unwounded, wrote a book about it (Chasing Ghosts), and then founded Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). It has 400,000 members and its motto is "We've got your back." They are supremely effective advocates for veterans; I would credit them with at least an assist on the new G.I. Bill, for example. He gave me a coin -- they didn't have them when I served, during the Vietnam era -- and I am proud to know him. (I should mention, too, that he has a cameo, or perhaps, camo, role in The Green Zone, which also features Matt Damon.)
The first veterans' organization in the United States may have been Daniel Shays' Rebellion. You remember -- soldiers in the Revolutionary War were paid off with IOUs, which had little value by 1786, but their creditors wanted hard coin, so some veterans led by a former captain named Daniel Shays took up arms and closed down court houses in western Massachusetts. They were suppressed eventually by the forces of law and order, with relatively little loss of life, and the outbreak powerfully motivated the Constitutional Convention of 1787 to make sure it provided for preserving the domestic tranquility. I am sure Congress meant well when it gave them the IOUs, but the IOUs were just words until Alexander Hamilton redeemed them, and it was too late for Shays and his followers. In much the same way, the Bonus March in the early 1930s came about because the $1,000 bonus Congress voted in 1920 for those who served in the First World War wasn't payable until 25 years later, in 1945. (According to family legend, my grandfather turned his down.) By 1945, there was a new generation of veterans, and I think Congress did right by them. Many of these veterans settled in Fairfield in the 1950s and 1960s. Some are still among us.
I will miss this year's parade -- we have a graduation out of town. If you are going, consider bringing some canned goods, which the Rotary Club will be collecting for Homes for the Brave. It will make the cool drink taste better. I wish it was that easy to make our politics more worthy of the sacrifice the day commemorates.
James H. Lee's column appears regularly in the Fairfield Citizen.