The children made them grin.
The video made them cry.
And Bill Deerfield’s Purple Heart made them stand up and cheer.
All told, hundreds of tough-as-nails veterans of the D-Day landings, Chosin Reservoir, Vietnam firefights, Iraqi ambushes and a hundred other deadly conflicts spent much of the two-hour Veterans Day services in Payson dabbing away tears.
One high point came when Payson resident Bill Deerfield got the Purple Heart more than half a century after he survived a Japanese Kamikaze attack that sunk his ship during the invasion of Okinawa.
Some 1,500 Japanese suicide pilots swarmed the U.S. armada protecting the landings on Okinawa. Deerfield manned a line of picket ships that took the brunt of the Kamikaze attack, which ultimately sank 12 U.S. destroyers and damaged 368 ships.
One plane crashed into the ocean just behind the stern of Deerfield’s ship, but a
second plane followed close behind. That plane crashed into the deck just in front of his gun position. The blast ripped Deerfield out of his turret and hurled him against the deck. By the time he regained his senses, the ship was in flames and sinking, the stern ripped away by the force of the explosion. Surviving crew members abandoned ship and bobbed in the water as the battle raged, waiting for rescue.
That rescue came 66 years sooner than did the Purple Heart Deerfield earned that day. The citation got lost in the avalanche of paperwork that attended the war’s end five months after the battle for Okinawa.
Deerfield got his Purple Heart in the mail, but that didn’t seem right to his fellow veterans, said Jim Muhr, who was awarded both a Silver Star and a Purple Heart in Vietnam. So the veterans organizing Friday’s ceremonies at the Payson High School drafted retired Naval Commander Bob Walker to make the presentation on stage in the midst of the two-hour celebration of Veterans Day, which drew about 400 people.
Deerfield himself stood at attention but struggled with the crush of emotions as he received his medal for fighting in the battle that inflicted more casualties on the Navy than any other in the war — with 4,907 killed and 4,874 wounded. But the sailors who died prevented the Kamikazes from reaching the landing crafts crowded with soldiers.
On land, Allied forces suffered 62,000 casualties before killing the last of the Japanese soldiers fighting suicidally in the honeycomb of tunnels. Of the 100,000 Japanese troops on the island, only about 7,000 finally surrendered.
The award shone a light on the courage and trauma the veterans sitting in the auditorium had suffered — and so rarely share. Veterans in the crowd rose to applaud as the songs of each service played over the sound system. Veterans attending included approximately 44 Army, 12 Marines, 32 Navy, 20 Air Force, four Coast Guard and four merchant mariners.
They included veterans of every major conflict since World War II, which ended in 1945.
The ceremony also included an emotionally compelling video from the Internet (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hkGzqpGx1KU) showing returning veterans catching friends and family members by surprise. The series of videos bore searing witness to the toll on families of the repeated, extended deployments in the course of the twin wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, now the longest-running wars in the nation’s history.
As the lights came on, one audience member struggled to keep his voice level, saying “That was rough.”
“Oh, I hate it,” said a decorated Vietnam War veteran who lived through some of the most intense combat in that war. “What a thing,” he added, covertly brushing away tears.
Several speakers did their best to express the nation’s gratitude for the service of the men and women sitting quietly in the auditorium, a world away from the battlefields they’d all survived.
Themed “Thank you Veterans and Welcome Home,” the services came with the pullout of combat troops in Iraq slated for the end of this year — and the war in Afghanistan finally winding down.
Retired Marine Col. Bill Sahno said the nation must now honor its commitment to those returning veterans, many with debilitating injuries.
“Cinch up your belts,” he said. “We’re in for a rough ride in 2011. We’re ending a decade of war and a lot of young veterans will be transitioning into our communities. We faced a similar day 90 years ago,” when the end of World War I spawned the celebrations that have evolved into Veterans Day. During this nation’s single year in that war, 117,000 soldiers died — a fraction of the 405,000 who would die in World War II.
Payson Mayor Kenny Evans recalled his childhood friend, Eddie, who could have played professional baseball, but instead enlisted — and died in Vietnam.
“We honor not only the end of Eddies of the world who died, but also those who came home to live. I hope you’ll remember there are veterans who not only left blood and limbs on foreign soil, but came home with wounds so deep they have to live with them every day. Say a prayer of gratitude not only for their willingness to die for us, but to live for us.”
An estimated 20 percent of returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or depression, according to one study by the RAND Corporation. In addition, about 20 percent have suffered probable Traumatic Brain Injury, as a result of surviving a nearby explosion.
Police Chief Don Engler said at least the civilians at home have come to honor military service, unlike conflicts like the Vietnam War that bitterly divided the nation.
“Americans are beginning to understand what our veterans have done to show that respect.”
Firefighter Andrew Hensley, whose brother is a staff sergeant about to leave on a fourth deployment to the Middle East, said “thank you” seemed inadequate. “I think about your sacrifice in going off without expectation of recognition to fight for me and my family. It is just such an honor to stand in front of a room full of uniforms drenched in honor.”
The program proceeded through patriotic songs by the Payson Choral Society and skits by high school students.
Near the end, the program delivered another moment that made many of the veterans struggle for control, during the performance of 17 members of the Payson Children’s Theater Choral Group.
The children warbled through a series of patriotic songs, with lines like “they gave their life, they gave their all,” their voices pure as apprentice angels floating out over the roomful of silent veterans, each with their store of grief and memories.
They fought for one another, of course. That’s what most combat veterans will say when pressed for an explanation of why they stay in the gun turret as the Kamikaze plane bears down and/or pack their bags for the fourth trip to Afghanistan. They fight for their friends in the foxhole. But judging by the tears that flowed as the children sang, they fought also for those upturned faces. Perhaps they hoped that those children will never come to understand precisely what they saw, what they did.
So the tyke dressed as Uncle Sam with a cotton beard did an adorably jerky dance as the combat veterans laughed and sniffled. Individuals in the audience had landed at Normandy, dropped grenades into the tunnels of Iwo Jima, dashed across the deck of the legendary USS Enterprise at Midway, Guadalcanal and Leyte Gulf, escaped the frozen death of North Korea’s Chosin Reservoir although surrounded by 60,000 Chinese troops and collected three Purple Hearts in Vietnam.
Now they grinned and glistened and clapped as the children danced and cooed: “I will remember, that freedom isn’t free.”