It’s those darn kids.
The cute-as-kittens kindergartners from Payson Elementary School sat fidgeting all the way through the hour-long round of tributes to Rim Country veterans. They slumped and giggled and climbed on the teacher’s lap all through the earnest slide shows, skits, patriotic songs and somber speeches, patiently waiting for their turn to get up and sing “God Bless America,” — with sign language subtext, for heaven’s sake.
All the while, the more than 300 veterans and their loved ones gathered in the Payson High School Auditorium Monday morning sat quietly, intently all through the speeches — pensive, appreciative, quiet.
They had seen terrible things, survived terrible things and perhaps worst of all — done terrible things — in the service of their country and in defense of little kids with angel voices tucked in, safe and sound, back home.
Now those little pixies trundled up onto the stage like a row of cheerful ducklings, turning fearlessly to face a cavernous hall filled with men and women with the hard memories they’d spent a lifetime accommodating.
The kindergartners sang out like they’d never been afraid, with sign language gestures perfectly practiced:
“God Bless America, Land that I love,” sang the children, to soldiers who had defended that land.
“Stand beside her, and guide her through the night with a light from above,” sang the children to Marines, who had stood watch through that long night.
“From the mountains, to the prairies, To the oceans, white with foam,” sang the children to the sailors who had seen that foam on the far side of the world.
“God bless America, My home sweet home,” sang the children, to the airmen and soldiers and sailors who had endured the terrible longing for home unique to night watches in combat zones.
Those veterans glistened and grinned. They furtively wiped away tears. They clapped like the war had finally ended. Maybe it was just that the kids were so cute. Or maybe that’s why those soldiers fought: so those kids could stand up there in all of their awful and essential innocence, believing the world contains only kind and loving people who would never, ever hurt them.
So once more, the voices of children offered the emotional highlight to a tearful and uplifting Veterans Day celebration staged in the Payson High School Auditorium.
Retired Marine Corps Col. Bill Sahno thanked those who took the time on a chilly Monday morning to come, for they represented also all of those who didn’t. “The political wheel of fortune has come to a stop,” he said of the recent election, “and we are going to do our best to bind together.”
Payson Mayor Kenny Evans foreswore his usual suit and tie for a worn bomber’s jacket he said he’s worn for 45 years, despite his wife’s best efforts to hide it in the back of the closet or smuggle it off to Goodwill. “You’re very much like this bomber’s jacket,” he said to the veterans. “Not that you’re torn and patched and worn, but that you have protected us in good times and in bad — but sometimes it must seem like we have put you in the back of the closet and forgotten about you. We are here to say, we will never forget.”
Payson Police Chief Don Engler spoke of what he learned from the book “American Sniper,” by former Navy Seal Chris Kyle, the most lethal sniper in military history — with 160 confirmed kills out of 255 claimed kills. A one-time professional bronco rider, he had to quit the rodeo circuit because of a shattered arm held together with pins. However, Kyle managed to slip past the physical and join the Navy. He fought in every major battle of the Iraq war and at one time the insurgents put an $80,000 bounty on the American they called the Devil of Rahmadi. In one famous incident, Kyle killed an insurgent at a range of 2,100 yards as the man was about to shoot a rocket launcher at a convoy. Kyle himself was shot twice and injured in six separate explosions.
Engler recounted one anecdote from the book in which a Navy Seal permanently blinded in an explosion asked for a wheelchair as soon as he could get out of bed, then asked to be wheeled over and left in front of an American flag. He saluted that unseen flag from his wheelchair and held the salute for half an hour.
Payson Fire Chief Marty deMasi, whose own brother died in service of his country, talked about how often his firefighters and paramedics have encountered veterans struggling with the impact of post traumatic stress disorder. He said the department has signed up for a training program to better equip them for dealing with those unseen wounds many veterans bring home.
The Veterans Administration is currently treating more than 200,000 service members with PTSD from Iraq and Afghanistan, but that’s only an estimated 50 percent of those receiving treatment. The number of people suffering from PTSD dwarfs the 47,000 who came back physically wounded. It includes many of the 215,000 who have suffered traumatic brain injuries as a result of a combination of life-saving body armor and the high number of explosions from roadside devices in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
One national study of returning veterans enrolled in college found that 24 percent suffered severe depression, 35 percent severe anxiety, 46 percent PTSD symptoms and 47 percent reported thoughts of suicide. Nearly 8 percent had attempted suicide.
Veterans also suffer high rates of homelessness, although that number has dropped by about 15,000 since 2009, thanks to a comprehensive federal effort. Homeless veterans account for a dismaying 16 percent of the nation’s homeless population, mostly as a result of drug addiction, alcoholism or PTSD — and mostly veterans of earlier wars. The VA has roughly doubled spending to $6 billion on the effort to reduce homeless among veterans.
Some 1.5 million Americans serve in the military, which costs taxpayers nearly $1 trillion annually. The U.S. spends more on its military than the next 10 biggest spending countries combined. But the 1 percent of the population who serve in the U.S. military provide the core of the defense for all the free world. When the U.S. invaded Iraq with a fraction of its forces, Saddam Hussein commanded the sixth largest military on the planet. It took about a week to destroy all his conventional forces.
Next to the kids’ choir on Monday, the next big emotional high came when each cluster of mostly aging warriors stood as the loudspeakers blared the song of their service — Marines, Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, Merchant Marine. They stood quietly, as they do every day, with their memories and their scars.
Mostly, they fold those memories up and store them away, like a triangular flag on the high shelf in the closet.
They did what they had to do. The gray-haired veterans filing out of the auditorium enjoyed the speeches and the little flare of recognition. They had their own stories, some hidden, most edited for civilians. They understood one another. You just do what you have to do to get home.
But hey. Those kids. Aren’t they something?