On the eve of Veterans Day, a personal story and gratitude to those who serve.
Folded, it’s tiny but priceless.
Unfolded, it’s a powerful symbol. A reminder of purpose and a bond. It’s one of those ethereal keepsakes that undergirds who we are and what we believe.
David Novak, aka Longboat Key’s “Swan Man and a combat-wounded Vietnam veteran in the Marines, gave that flag to our son eight years ago as he was departing on his first deployment as a Marine lieutenant.
Novak is a humble veteran. He doesn’t regale you with bragadocious war stories. The extent of his wartime past is hardly visible, a Florida license plate signifying its occupant is a combat-wounded veteran.
Novak’s story is quintessential American: He grew up the only boy of three, son of a millworker in Campbell, Ohio — as he says, “poor but didn’t know it.” When our involvement in the Vietnam War was growing, Novak decided: What the heck, knowing being drafted was highly likely, he preempted that and enlisted in the Marines, hoping he’d be “trained well enough to take care of himself.”
He can’t remember where he acquired the small American flag. But he distinctly remembers leaving it in his “seabag” with his few other personal possessions at the gear tent at his base in Vietnam.
On Oct. 9, 1968, Novak was part of large helicopter operation at the DMZ. As troops scattered out of the helicopter, Novak and a colleague were one of the last off and held back to provide cover for the captain and radio man. In a flash, an RPG hit them, killing Novak’s colleague and wounding Novak, the captain and radio man.
Marines dragged them to safety. Novak was tagged “emergency status” — another way of saying his life was in danger. He had internal abdominal bleeding and a wounded leg.
It started raining. The helicopters couldn’t evacuate for an hour.
Novak and his flag were sent to the Philippines, Guam, then to the Bethesda National Naval Medical Center.
Novak was awarded a Purple Heart.
Recovered, he went back to Ohio, earned a degree and went to work as a computer tech at Firestone, settling later in Tampa and Longboat Key as an entrepreneur.
On the eve of Veterans Day, Brian Walsh, now a captain in the Marine Raiders, sent a message: “Tell David the flag he gave me has now been to Vietnam, the Philippines, Guam, Qatar, Israel, Jordan (twice), Okinawa, South Korea along the DMZ and Iraq.
“If it made it through Vietnam, it can make it through anything.”
In that final statement, there was recognition and admiration from a young Marine to a Marine veteran more than a generation his elder in honor of his service.
All because of a flag that binds us together.
OUR ETERNAL GRATITUDE
“Thank you for your service.”
Sometimes that feels so inadequate. It just doesn’t feel like it carries the gravity and sincerity that you wish it did.
And when you say it to soldiers or veterans you don’t know, you wonder: Did that really mean anything to them? Or was it just so hackneyed that the words simply floated into the empty air?
It’s good, nevertheless, that we keep saying it, or anything that expresses our gratitude for those who served and are serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. For my generation, the boomers, it’s good that we do that because it took a quarter-century to bury the devastating cultural calamity that remains one of the ugly scars of our nation’s history.
You cannot forget the way we treated Vietnam veterans.
As we so often do in the U.S., unfortunately, we had to endure a seemingly civil war to change our ways for the better.
Think about the long transformation. We spat in the faces of the soldiers when they returned from Vietnam and ignored their needs. Twenty-five years later, we crowded into football stadiums to cheer as heroes the men and women who decisively won the Gulf War in 1991.
And today, you cannot watch a television program or listen to a radio show without hearing about the scores of organizations that have formed to help the veterans and their families affected by the War on Terror.
We have recognized our obligation to them.
It doesn’t matter whether you agree or disagree with our involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan or anywhere else. When you think of our service men and women, it’s good to remember that those who served and those who are serving — regardless of their roles in peace time and in war, here or abroad — made an extraordinary statement when they donned the uniform. They pledged to all of us that they were unwilling to let us be the conquered slaves of any enemy forces and were willing to die for us to protect our most precious, priceless possession: liberty.
We owe them eternal gratitude. With sincerity on this Veterans Day eve:
Thank you for your service.