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|Let freedom ring!|
|By Ernest Gurulé|
It is a simple, yet melancholy tune, with a one-syllable name; “Taps.” Yet, despite its simplicity, most often played by a single trumpet, its melody is both haunting and unmistakable. But today, it will be played across the land, in the biggest cities as well as the most obscure and off-the-beaten-path hamlets.
It will be played to honor the young men and women who raised their right hand and went to war or simply did their duty and served their nation. They are the veterans. But their numbers are shrinking.
The ‘greatest generation,’ those who served in WWII, is now mostly gone or well entrenched in their nineties and vanishing at a rate of 400 a day. Korean War vets are also leaving the scene and ‘Baby Boomers,’ the young men and smattering of young women who served in Vietnam are now also showing their age. Soon enough, the same will be said for those who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. Time is the adversary none can defeat.
In the span of 75 years, from WWII to today, veterans have shrunk from 12 percent of the population to just a single percent today. At the height of WWII, when the nation’s population was 132 million, 16 million served. Today, with a population of 330 million, about three million men and women make up the U.S. military.
In the early 1970’s, there were more than 300 veterans serving in the U.S. Congress. But the end of the draft – compulsory conscription – in 1973 lessened the motivation to serve. Calls to return to the draft have mostly fallen on deaf ears by the Department of Defense.
But with only one percent of our population serving, Congress may actually be overrepresented. According to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, of the 535 members in Congress, 101 have served in the military. With 81 members, the House of Representatives easily outnumbers the Senate’s 20 veterans. They are veterans of Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf War, Afghanistan, Iraq and Kosovo.
The numbers also include four women, each of whom has served in combat. Illinois Democratic Representative Tammy Duckworth stands out. She is a combat helicopter pilot who lost both legs when a rocket-propelled grenade hit her helicopter. She was awarded The Purple Heart, The Air Medal and The Army Commendation Medal.
Colorado Congressman Mike Coffman is currently the only member of the state’s congressional delegation with veteran’s status. He currently holds the rank of Major in the Marine Corps. He has also served tours in two wars, the Persian Gulf War and the Iraq War.
“I believe there is no greater honor and no better way to demonstrate your commitment to the United States than serving in our nation’s military,” said Coffman. “Veterans Day,” said Coffman, “is not only an opportunity to thank the men and women who have served our country and kept us safe for generations, it’s also an opportunity to reflect on things that make our nation great.”
Besides serving in the Marines, Coffman is also a former state legislator as well as state Treasurer. He is one of the most strident voices in Congress on veteran’s affairs. He is also among its harshest critics and has frequently spoken out about cost overruns and mismanagement of the still-under-construction VA Hospital in Aurora.
While Coffman is the only veteran among Colorado’s Congressional delegation, the state legislature is peppered with veterans. Republican Senate members include: David Balmer, Bill Cadman, John Cooke, Larry Crowder, Owen Hill and Kent Lambert. Hill and Lambert are also Air Force Academy graduates.
House Republican veterans are made up of Brian Del Grosso, Terri Carver, John Keyser, Patrick Nevell, Gordon Klingenschmitt, Bob Rankin, Kit Roupe and Lan Sias. “It is a tremendous honor to have had the opportunity to serve in both our armed forces and our state legislature,” said DelGrosso, a small business owner who represents Loveland.
On the Democratic side, Representative Steve Lebsock, is a Marine Corps veteran. The two Senate veterans are Boulder’s Rollie Heath, an Army veteran, and Leroy Garcia of Pueblo.
Garcia joined the Marine Corp just after graduation from high school in 2001 and served through 2007. The Pueblo native had always been interested in the Marines but wanted to try college first. But it proved too expensive so he was off to the Marines figuring he could return to college later on. What he didn’t figure on is 9/11 and the resulting war. Early and unexpectedly in his tour, the Marines extended his enlistment. While not entirely pleased with this arbitrary decision, Garcia accepted it. “They didn’t have the numbers to support active duty.”
Another thing Garcia didn’t count on was learning just before deployment that he’d be doing a job in Iraq that he couldn’t have even imagined. Sixty days before deploying to the war as a heavy vehicle operator, he learned he’d been selected for something entirely different: mortuary affairs. Shocked. Surprised. Stunned. All of these feelings coursed through his veins. But one resonated in him like none other. He was a Marine and there was a job to do.
“You understand what you’re being asked to do,” he said. “Our job was to take care of Marines killed in combat.”
To an outsider, mortuary affairs may not sound appealing. In fact, said Garcia, no one signs up for a job like “MA,” as he calls it. But appeal wasn’t part of the equation to Garcia. The job was simple: honoring and respecting fallen comrades. “One of the things Marines are known for,” he said in a recent phone interview, “is taking care of our own.”
Garcia, who has two younger brothers in the Marine Corps, said he approached his job with pride and respect, not only for the fallen Marines, but for the families who would receive them back home. Rings, medals, mementos were all carefully catalogued; nothing was left to chance. Uniforms, for their final journey home, had to meet the highest Marine standards. Creases were perfect. Belt lines, too. “These are your brothers and sisters. You always remember them.”
Today, as a legislator, Garcia is focused on a number of things, including veteran’s affairs. “We can’t forget someone who answered the call,” he said. “I’m passionate that I can work as a senator, as an advocate.” He said there are too many veterans who are homeless or with substance abuse problems. “Our office helps as a liaison. But we have so much more to do.”
And with so few veterans serving in elected office and being able to put themselves in the shoes of those who have served their country, the job becomes a greater challenge.
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