Guest Commentary: The greatest debt we owe

(Editors’ Note: Mr. Hazzard gave the following address at Wilton’s Veterans Day ceremony on Sunday, Nov. 11.)

Google the term “national debt” and you will quickly receive the search results for more than 28 million websites.

Most deal with the very serious issues of government overspending and the accumulation of more than two centuries of federal deficits. Yet very few bring up the biggest national debt of them all — that which America owes to her veterans.

As we are here today to honor our veterans, we also honor the more than one million American men and women who have given their lives for their country since our nation’s founding.

Our debt to these heroes can never be repaid but our gratitude and respect must last forever.

For many veterans, our nation was important enough to endure long separations from their families, miss the birth of their children, freeze in sub-zero temperatures, bake in the wild jungles, lose limbs, and far too often, lose their lives.

Military spouses have had to endure career interruptions, frequent changes of address, and a disproportionate share of parental responsibilities.

The children often had to endure changes in schools, separation from friends and, hardest of all, the uncertainty of whether or not Mom or Dad will live through their next combat tour.

The American Legion’s national commander recently told Congress that it is not in the nature of America’s warriors to complain. Warriors endure. Warriors make do with less. Warriors finish the job, no matter how hard, no matter what is asked.

You cannot fight a war without veterans and while the utopian idea of a society without war is appealing, let us not forget that wars have liberated slaves, stopped genocide and toppled terrorists.

It has been often said that without our veterans, Americans would be speaking Russian, German, or perhaps Japanese. Regardless of which alternative history you take, we do know that without our veterans America would not be America.

You can show your support by hiring a veteran in your workplace, visiting a VA hospital or donating to a veterans program, but you can also show your support simply by saying “thank you” to the next veteran you meet.

Homelessness is an issue that affects veterans disproportionately. Too often today’s tattered citizen of the street was yesterday’s toast of the town in a crisp uniform with rows of shining medals. This is hardly the thanks of a grateful nation.

We can do better, our government should do better. Fortunately, veterans don’t ask for much. Benefits are a mere drop in the bucket compared to the financial and human cost of war. But, nonetheless, we still owe them.

Historians have said that Dwight Eisenhower was prouder of being a soldier than he was of being the president. And while relatively few veterans ever reach the rank of general, pride in one’s military service is a bond shared by nearly all who have served.

The pride is on display on every obituary page in the country, where military service — regardless of how many decades have passed and subsequent achievements reached — is mentioned with the death notice of nearly every deceased veteran.

Fewer than 10% of Americans can claim the title “veteran.” And while the great military phrase “uncommon valor was a common virtue” has been so often repeated that it risks becoming a cliché, it is no less true.

For all veterans, regardless of their service and era in which they served, they have paid the price time and time again.

A soldier knows what it is like to stand guard in the chill of the night while others sleep. He understands the meaning of hardship — losing a comrade to an enemy shell.

He understands the meaning of fear, as he faces fear every time he is sent on patrol.

As we look out on the world, we see our soldiers serving in some 100 countries, and the legacy of our veterans continues to inspire our American soldiers today to answer the call of duty.

While we pay homage to all American veterans, I particularly want to acknowledge and thank our Vietnam veterans this morning. We served in a war that deeply divided our nation, but America is resilient, we are a country of temperance, compassion and reason, and with the passage of time, we healed our wounds.

Most of us didn’t receive a very warm welcome home when we returned from that God-awful place, but I see a change, and I like what I see.

I see our servicemen and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan receiving the welcome home that they deserve. One of respect and honor.

Through their blood, service and sacrifice, veterans have given us freedom, security and the greatest nation on earth. It is impossible to put a price on that.

We must remember them. We must appreciate them.

God bless you all for being here, God bless our veterans and God bless America.