Today is Veterans Day in the United States. Originally a day to commemorate the end of World War I (which occurred at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918), it now includes all those who have served or continue to serve in our armed forces. One of the most important ways we can honor our veterans for their service is to tell their stories so that they are remembered. Never has this been more important than today. With less and less emphasis being placed on history in our schools, our youth don’t remember as much as they should about our veterans. Here are three stories from World War I through Vietnam whose stories should be remembered.
There was a time when every American knew the name Alvin York. Sergeant York was born in Tennessee in 1887. He was drafted into the U.S. Army during World War I despite his opposition. The conscientious objector went on to become one of the most decorated American soldiers of the entire war. During the Meuse-Argonne Offensive (where my great-great uncle made the ultimate sacrifice), York led an attack on a German machine gun nest. The raid resulted in the deaths of 28 German soldiers, and the capture of 132 others (as well as 32 machine guns). He would eventually be awarded the Medal of Honor amongst others. In 1941 Gary Cooper won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Sergeant York in the eponymous film story of his life, yet the average American today would be hard-pressed to name him, let alone discuss his service. Today his service is remembered and promulgated by the Sergeant York Patriotic Foundation.
During World War II, women served in a wide variety of positions to help the United States and the allied forces. One group in particular whose dedicated service is not recognized enough is the Women Airforce Service Pilots. During the war, more than a thousand women joined an Army Air Corps program. They became the first female pilots in our history. They flew aircraft between bases in non-combat situations. This freed male pilots to serve in the front lines. WASP pilots flew more than 60 million miles during the war, and 38 of them made the ultimate sacrifice. Today the libraries at Texas Woman’s University hold the official WASP archives.
Technical Sergeant Leonard Matlovich was born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1943. He was the only son of his career Air Force father. Leonard followed in his father’s footsteps, enlisting in the Air Force in 1963. He served in Vietnam for several years, earning the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart. In the early 1970s he ran very successful at training members of the Air Force in race relations, coaching other instructors around the country. Realizing that discrimination against gays and lesbians serving in the military was also wrong, he became the first gay man to sue the United States for the right to serve after he came out and was discharged. The Air Force lost the suit, but convinced Matlovich to take a monetary settlement instead of being reinstated to service, threatening to find other reasons to discharge him again. After he died from complications of AIDS in 1988, he was buried in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C. His headstone inscription contains a phrase that also appeared in his Time magazine interview years earlier: “When I was in the military they gave me a medal for killing two men, and a discharge for loving one.” Five years later, the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy was instituted. It would take until 2010 before GLBT men and women would be allowed to serve openly in the U.S. military. For more information about his story, visit LeonardMatlovich.com.
These are just some examples of the bravery and heroism shown by the men and women who have fought to defend our country and what it stands for. By telling their stories, we remind ourselves and the next generation of their service, and express our eternal gratitude for it. Without them, we would not be the country we are today. Take the time to tell your family members the stories of your ancestors who have served through the generations.