Purple Heart Society meeting teaches thankfulness for veterans’ organizations

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Paul Birch
  • 4th Operations Support Squadron commander
The North Carolina chapters of the Military Order of the Purple Heart invited the 4th Fighter Wing to send a representative to their state-wide meeting in Goldsboro, N.C. the first weekend in December. As that representative, I was honored to address the assembled chapter representatives and state organizational leadership of this national organization that dedicates itself primarily to ensuring proper care for wounded warriors.

Our generation of service members injured in combat enjoys unparalleled care and support throughout our society. It is easy to lose sight of just how much an organization like the Military Order of the Purple Heart does for wounded veterans. My time with them made me reflect on how much support returning veterans over the past decade received not just from the government, but from volunteer organizations and citizens. Though wounded veterans face serious challenges upon their return to civilian life, from a recent historical viewpoint now is a good time to be a veteran. This is particularly true in communities like Goldsboro who are ardent supporters of their local bases and the men and women who serve.

Pondering the breadth of our support made me realize that this has been a cyclic phenomenon in the United States. Although we are a generation removed from the Vietnam conflict, the memory of veterans spurned and scorned upon homecoming still appears vividly in the press, at meetings of veterans' groups, and other forums. How did our country get there? How did we, in bridging the generation between World War II and Vietnam, go from welcoming veterans with open arms and thankful adulation to jeering them and worse? Most importantly, will the cycle continue, returning us to those dark days?

I hope the answer is an emphatic "no." A primary difference within our society since the Vietnam era is that most are able to separate those who voluntarily serve their country from their political viewpoints about the conflicts in which these people serve. This beginning of this sentiment is captured by the bumper sticker "I support the troops," completed by the unstated second half: "...no matter what I might think about the war." This healthy framework for public discourse avoids personal attacks against service members while allowing reasonable debate about national interests and political motivations. It is this collective emotional maturity more than anything else that allows veterans to enjoy the gratitude of their nation for their service independent from political polarization or interest group overtones.

The other way we can hope to keep alive the current favorable state of affairs is through organizations and events that keep alive the memories of what has happened in the past. The next time I see the MOPH float in the annual Veterans' Day parade, I'll have a better appreciation for what that organization stands for and why it is important. The same sentiment applies to visiting The Vietnam Wall Memorial and other reminders of those who provided national service whether the nation's business was popular or not when they served.

While proud of my service and my small contributions, I am somewhat self-conscious at events honoring veterans or military service members. Several other active duty Airmen have shared the same sentiment. Above all else, we would like the attention to go toward veterans who have finished their military careers and those who were wounded or killed in the line of duty. But I think seeing the MOPH meeting a few weeks ago helped me see a bigger part of the reason for these events and may temper some of my typical unease. Having veterans visible and honoring their service does a collective good for society in the way it makes us think about and deal with armed conflict. This is especially important as our nation fights and wins its conflicts with an all-volunteer force.

At the next Veterans' Day parade, I'll proudly honor the sacrifices of veterans with a renewed sense of purpose. And I'll have the example I witnessed at the Military Order of the Purple Heart meeting to thank for that.

Thank you to the ladies and gentlemen who have earned the Purple Heart for their selfless service to our great nation.