In the end, it was the kids that got to them.
The line of maybe 30 cherubs concluded their tremulous patriotic song on the vast stage of the Payson High School Auditorium. Then, the sweet-faced 5- to 14-year-olds solemnly saluted the nearly 300 people gathered to say “thank you” to the nation’s veterans.
That did it.
The misty-eyed crowd rose to their feet, led by maybe 120 veterans of every one of the nation’s wars fought since 1940.
The first man on his feet had survived the 77-day siege of Khe Sahn in Vietnam in 1968. The trapped Marines lost 730 dead and 2,642 wounded and stood off relentless attacks, sometimes fighting hand-to-hand at the barbed wire outskirts of the base — in the process inflicting perhaps 15,000 casualties on the attacking North Vietnamese.
“Way to go kids,” called out another veteran, just back from Iraq, now serving Payson as a firefighter and paramedic.
Tears glistened on the faces of men who’d done and seen and suffered terrible things. Gray and bent and proud and so often silent about their service, they now bore collective witness to a bloody history — terrible deeds redeemed by love and courage.
One helped General George Patton find his way through the bewildering hedgerows of France to charge on into Nazi Germany.
One survived Guadalcanal in 1942, a speck of rock where the some 60,000 Allied soldiers spent seven months fending off ferocious, sometimes suicidal Japanese attacks. The Americans lost 7,100 men, 29 ships and 615 aircraft, but sank 38 ships, downed 800 planes and killed 31,000 Japanese soldiers — who fought so stubbornly only 1,000 ultimately surrendered.
One served aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Enterprise, which struck the first blow to avenge Pearl Harbor and fought in almost every major engagement of the vast Pacific war with Japan before a kamikaze fighter crippled her in 1945.
One survived the horrific battle in the frozen wastes of North Korea’s Chosin to avenge Pearl Harbor and fought in almost every major engagement of the vast Pacific war with Japan before a kamikaze fighter crippled her in 1945.
Another survived the horrific battle in the frozen wastes of North Korea’s Chosin Reservoir, where a mixed force of 30,000 Marine and Army units withstood the massed attack of twice their number of elite Chinese soldiers then fought their way out of what had seemed a fatal trap. They lost nearly 6,000 killed and missing in the struggle, but the Chinese suffered an estimated 50,000 casualties — including many who starved or froze.
One veteran had just returned from America’s longest war and had begun his adjustment to civilian life.
These veterans had seen everything. Done things they won’t tell you about. Lost comrades they think about every day.
But those kids. Those cute little kids. Looking like they’d never wept, never grieved, never heard a Marine cuss, never had a nightmare — those kids just undid all those hard cases with their songs and a salute.
Why, it was almost like, that’s what they were out there fighting for, dying for — so those children would never have to do what they had done.
Not even the closing lyrics of “Amazing Grace” and the haunting tremble of the bugled “Taps” could match the impact of those children’s voices. That hour-long celebration of Veterans Day represented the heartfelt, but somehow inadequate, attempt of citizens who don’t have to live with the scars and the memories to thank those who do.
“Forgive me, I’m a little intimidated,” said Payson firefighter Andrew Hensley in his turn at the podium, knowing the things those veterans had seen. “Saying ‘thank you,’ doesn’t seem like enough. If there was a larger word, I would use it.”
Payson Mayor Kenny Evans said he wanted to also “recognize the sacrifice, the anguish and the great sorrow felt by those who are left behind” when a loved one goes to war.
He said all of those who stayed home benefited from that often costly service and so now can only dedicate themselves to do their part to also safeguard and utilize the freedom defended at such heavy price.
“Let us roll up our sleeves and likewise be valiant in that effort,” he said.
Performances by the Payson Choral Society and Payson High School drama students plus two video shows rounded out the program.
Another high point came as the crowd applauded for the veterans in attendance, each group standing as the official song of their branch of the service thundered through the auditorium’s upgraded sound system. As the songs blared and the applause settled into a delighted rhythm, the veterans stood –— 42 from the Army, 14 from the Marines, 30 from the Navy, 34 from the Air Force, four from the Coast Guard and seven from the Merchant Marines.
Veterans Day grew out of the celebrations of the Nov. 11, 1918 signing of the Armistice that ended World War I, that dreadful conflict that shattered Europe and resulted in an estimated 16 million military and civilian deaths, including 116,000 Americans.
Woodrow Wilson declared the first Armistice Day in 1919. The holiday morphed into Veterans Day after 1952, with the 50 million to 70 million deaths of World War II fresh in memory. Those deaths included 446,000 Americans.
Some 1.4 million Americans serve in the military at present. A total of 42 million have served in the military in the course of the nation’s history, with 23 million veterans alive today.
Some 16 million served in World War II, 5.7 million in the Korean War, 8.7 million served in Vietnam, 2.2 million in the 1990-91 Gulf War and 1.5 million in Iraq and Afghanistan. So far, about 5,300 Americans have died in our two most recent wars and 37,000 have been wounded.
One study involving 88,000 soldiers returning from Iraq found nearly 70 percent had “traumatic combat experiences.” At an initial screening upon their return, about 17 percent had mental health concerns, including depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. A second screening six months after their return found that 36 percent by then suffered from one or more mental health problems.
But those dark statistics and the struggles combat veterans have always faced in returning to civilian life, were put to rest at least for an hour as a community gave thanks.
And when the song of the children faded and they all raised their hands in tiny salute, the veterans all came to their feet.
And it didn’t take a mind reader to know what they were thinking.
It was all worth it after all.