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by Ron Cruger
"Who will be alive tomorrow?
           I grew up with John Wayne and his movies. I saw war through the lens of his movies. Shows like “Back to Bataan,” “Flying Tigers,” “Fighting Seabees,” “Sands of Iwo Jima,” “Green Berets” and more than a dozen other military flicks starring the “Duke” taught me what war was about.
           As a young boy the images of war and soldiering that formed in my mind were based largely on John Wayne movies. As I had never had to serve in our country’s military those images of John Wayne defeating America’s enemies stayed with me most of my life. I thought that by watching these movies I was as knowledgeable as I could be about the realities of war.
           Along came the films of the war in Vietnam and I saw a bit more about the realities of warfare. Then the wars in Iraq became featured films on the nightly news and I learned more about the actual horrors of war.
          I had read for years about the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis and Japanese during the second World War. I had read and seen movies about the D-Day invasion, especially more realistic enactments like, “Saving Private Ryan,” but, like most things in our lives, unless we are actually part of an experience, unless we feel the event on our skin, we don’t really know the truth of the heat, the fire, the pain and the gore of the event.
           I learned more about war and what it does to men during a recent weekend in Laughlin, Nevada, where some of the hotels and casinos were observing Veteran’s Day and honoring our veterans with discounts and respectful ceremonies.
           Thousands of war veterans flocked to Laughlin. Many in their 70’s and 80’s. Some in their 90’s. Many wore caps imprinted with the names of the ships they served on during their service to our country. Others wore their VFW or American Legion caps. A few were in wheel chairs, some used crutches to get around. Most were topped with grey hair of varying amounts. Some were fat, some thin. Some walked erect and some bent over. There were thousands of these men who had gathered in this small gambling town in Nevada to observe Veteran’s Day.
          These were the same elderly men you see in your local Wal-Mart, Von’s or Home Depot. But this was Veteran’s Day weekend and these men were gathered together. They were a corps of men who had offered up their lives for our freedom.
          There was something about most of these men. There was a look about them – there was something in their eyes. They had tempted death and won the battle. They had killed the enemy and watched their friends and compatriots die beside them.
           Whether they had dared death in France, North Africa, Berlin, Iraq, Da Nang, Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima or Pearl Harbor, they had a bearing, a look, a shared secret. Many were given medals for their bravery, but not one medal was in evidence on this weekend. These men were brothers - equals. They had shared something many of us can’t understand or appreciate.
           These men had seen death and atrocities. These men had stormed beaches and watched thousands of their buddies, their bunkmates, fall before them and yet they moved forward, listening to the whine of the bullets pass them. These men had left their comfortable homes and their families as young men, fought for their lives, saw and did unimaginable feats and returned home changed forever.
           These humble old men shook hands and hugged each other when they met. They looked each other in the eye and shared a secret that only they carry in their souls. They had cheated death and now walked among us. They were grateful for their good fortune and saddened because of those they had seen die next to them. Many felt the guilt of surviving where others hadn’t.
           These weren’t men from a John Wayne movie. These were the real heroes of war. These were men with artificial limbs, scarred bodies and souls. These were men who had seen the unthinkable and on this Veteran’s Day weekend were walking among us, paying humble tribute to each other with a nod or a pat on the back.
           I saw one white-haired veteran wearing his VFW cap, his wheelchair being pushed by his elderly wife through the casino. Every aging veteran who passed by him reached out to touch him and nodded as if to acknowledge his contribution to the cause.
           All of these men are back home now - forgotten heroes of America’s struggle to stay free. No more parades, no medals, no speeches extolling their bravery. Their memories of war will rattle around inside their heads and then they will pass on to another place. Perhaps they will be remembered by a small, white cross amidst a row of other white crosses.
            I’ll think of these men differently now than I did before. I saw something in their eyes. Something that doesn’t have a name.
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