soldiers

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Where would a nation be without its soldiers? In deep trouble. Our world, at this time in history is at its most volatile. To top it off, being in the service has been voluntary for a long time now. That means two things. First that fewer people might be entering the service; and second, that the ones who join, want to be there and will work harder. Being in the service is an often-thankless job with long hours at times, and months or even years away from family when necessary. Our soldiers are at the beck and call of the commander-in-chief. It would be nice if our world could live together in peace and harmony, but that has never and will never be…until the end of time. Until then, we need them.

There are several types of soldiers, and I don’t mean branches of the military, although there are those too. We have Army, Navy, AirForce, and Marines, as well as Coast Guard and National Guard, but the types I am referring to are Killed in Action, active duty, and Veterans and retirees. With that, there are also special days of remembrance for soldiers. For those killed in action, there is Memorial Day. For active-duty soldiers, there is Armed Forces Day, and for veterans and retirees, there is Veterans Day.

For those who are veterans, we take this opportunity to thank them for their service and their sacrifice, because they did sacrifice. They left their families at home and went out to fight for people they don’t even know, and probably never will. We, here at home, have no way to really repay them for their acts of selflessness, so all we can do is thank them for their service. Somehow, it just doesn’t seem enough. How could we possibly repay them? We can never give them back the lost time with family, the memories, the births of children, and the multiple firsts that go with them. Those things are gone forever for the soldier, because they chose to go out and protect their country, and the people in it. It is a debt that we, as mere citizens, can never repay. All we can do is be grateful, because our lives are what they are because of a soldier. Yes, we are grateful to the active-duty soldiers currently protecting us, and we pray every day that they will get to come home to their families one day, and become a veteran or retiree, but today is for that special group. The ones who served, and then went back to their lives and tried to pick up where they left off, or at least start the next step. To you I say, Happy Veterans Day, and thank you so much for your service. We are forever grateful!!

During World War II, and through the Vietnam War, the United States government was facing a situation with the US dollar that was different from prior years. It’s not something we really think about much, but it had to do with the fact that the countries the US Military was in were unsure of how their money was going to play out if they were one of the countries that fell. The dollar was stable, so they were happy to take payment in the US dollar over their own currency. In fact, the local civilians often accepted payment in dollars for less than the accepted conversion rates, meaning that they lost money in the deal. Dollars became more favorable to hold, which further inflated the local currencies, defeating plans to stabilize local economies. On top of that, troops were being paid in dollars, which they could convert in unlimited amounts to the local currency with merchants at the floating (black market) conversion rate, which was much more than the government fixed conversion rate. It was rather a great money-making proposition, but really wasn’t ethical. This conversion rate imbalance allowed the servicemen to profit from the more favorable exchange rate.

While anyone could understand how people would want to make money if they can, it was really going to be damaging to the local economy in the end. The MPCs were designed to stop the unfair conversion rate of currency. The scrip (MOCs) was changed out periodically, to avoid hoarding. Once they came out with a new version of scrip, the prior version became worthless. Another way they were supposed to eliminate the problem was that MPCs were only allowed to be used by military personnel in military facilities and approved locations. As a safeguard, if the MPCs were converted to local currency, they were not allowed to be reconverted to MPCs, so the plan was useless. US MPCs were in use from 1946-1973 and were used in all overseas military locations.

I was actually watching an episode of MASH this morning about this very thing. The men were buying up the old scrip from people who couldn’t get to the exchange. Of course, they bought it for less than its value, planning to cash in when they turned it in for its face value. The solution for that problem was that the military personnel were restricted to the base on C-Days…currency exchange days. I don’t know how much of the fraudulent exchanges were stopped in this way, but it might have stopped some.

Soldiers everywhere have varied backgrounds, but maybe more so during World War I and World War II, as well as wars in which there was a draft. Robert Kerr “Jock” McLaren was a veterinarian by trade, but during his service with the Second Australian Imperial Force, he also became a feared guerrilla fighter who ran missions against the Japanese. I suppose that, while a veterinarian doesn’t work on humans, possessing certain skills would be important in certain situations. McLaren spent countless hours, days, and weeks in the jungles, and after one such assignment, his medical skills suddenly became urgently needed…on himself. McLaren found himself faced with surgery on himself, or certain death. So, in order to save his own life, McLaren set about to remove his own appendix…in the jungle, with a pen knife, two spoons, and coconut fibers.

McLaren was just a teenager during World War I, when he served with the 51st (Highland) Division of the British Army. Because he was so young then, it’s unlikely that he saw combat on the Western Front. Nevertheless, his name is found on the rolls from his division’s time in France in 1918. That made people wonder if he participated in fighting during the Spring Offensive. Following the war, McLaren returned to Scotland and completed training to become a veterinarian. He then moved to Queensland, Australia, where he worked as a veterinary officer in Bundaberg.

When World War II began, McLaren volunteered for the Second Australian Imperial Force. McLaren, 39 years old at the time, was assigned to the 2/10th Australian Field Workshops, 8th Australian Division and stationed in Singapore. McLaren spent time in a POW camp and escaped along with two other soldiers. After being tortured and faced with a firing squad, the trio were ultimately returned to their cells. McLaren, along with 1,000 British and Australian soldiers, was later transferred to Borneo and held at the Sandakan camp. He made plans to escape again, this time with a Chinese POW named Johnny Funk. The escape took the men to the large Philippine Island of Mindanao, where they joined the resistance led by American Reserve Officer, Lt. Col. Wendell Fertig. He was later given the chance to return to Australia, but chose to remain a guerrilla.

It was during his time as a guerrilla that McLaren’s appendicitis attack occurred. During one patrol as a guerrilla, McLaren developed a severe case of appendicitis. He knew enough to know that he was going to have to treat himself, or he would die. So, he performed surgery with just a penknife and two spoons. He stitched the incision with coconut fibers. When asked about the act years later, he said, “It was hell, but I came through alright.” A modest remark for such a remarkable act…in the middle of a Philippine jungle in 1944, without any anesthetic and with only the use of a mirror to see. The operation took 4½ hours. Still, as he said he came through it alright, and he would not be that last person to do surgery on themselves. Nevertheless…remarkable.

Just outside the little village of Chatillon in Southern Belgium, on top of a tree covered hill, hidden from view, there was a “car cemetery” filled with cars that once belonged to the US servicemen stationed there. No one really knows how the soldiers came to obtain the cars exactly, especially since they were mostly American made cars…meaning they must have been shipped over to Belgium. So, the soldiers who were stationed in Belgium during World War II somehow had cars to drive to get around while they were serving over there.

Then, once the war was over, the soldiers returned to the United States. I suppose that bringing the vehicles over happened a few at a time, but shipping them back would be a massive undertaking, so it was decided to leave them behind. To me, it would seem like they should have given the cars away. At least that way, people in the area could have a car, when they might not have been able to afford one any other way. Nevertheless, that was not how it was done. The officers in charge decided to leave them in the country and parked them all up at the top of a hill, which was hidden from view. It was left up to the individual soldier whether or not they wanted to have their car shipped to them once they returned home, at their own expense. Not one of them decided to retrieve their car. These days the way things took place in the end, would have very likely cause an international uproar because they basically littered the landscape with junk cars. Of course, they weren’t junk at the time, and I suppose the people of the area could have taken the cars as abandoned. I’m not sure how they would have run when it was finally determined that they were abandoned, and maybe it was decided that it would cost too much. That may be the reason that none of the soldiers ever claimed their vehicles…a cost too heavy and no help in sight.

After many years, the forest was in the process of making very slow work of returning the cars to nature. The stories about the “Car Cemetery” persisted, and possibly complaints too. It was said that American-made cars had been brought by American and Canadian NATO troops to a mechanic in Châtillon. One by one, the cars were driven up a hill, parked, and somehow hidden from the outside world. Eventually, local people added their own old cars too. Possibly the mechanic was to keep them for the soldiers, but after France’s 1966 withdrawal from NATO, he was left “holding the bag” as it were, with hundreds of scrap cars that gradually became overgrown until a television documentary brought the “illegal dump” to light. Finally, the cars were removed and crushed in October 2010.

To date, some of the cars are said to still be there. At one point there was not one but four car graveyards around the village of Chatillon with as many as 500 vehicles. The ones that remain today are only a fraction of the original number of cars. A lot of cars and their parts were stolen by the locals and international car collectors, so maybe some of them have been restored before they were completely lost. Either way, it was a very strange situation.

Veteran’s Day is a day about sacrifice and honor, duty and dedication, war and peace, but the day cannot pass for me without thoughts of my dad, and how much I miss him. I know I am not alone in these thoughts, because my sisters also miss him, as well as the rest of our family. My dad Staff Sergeant Allen L Spencer, fought in World War II, serving as flight engineer and top turret gunner on a B-17G Bomber. Dad came home after his successful service, which is why my sisters and I are alive, and why he was a veteran. A veteran is someone who served in the military and came home after.

Soldiers really are a rare bread, created by God to go out and protect those who cannot protect themselves, even when those they protect don’t know or even care that it is a soldier who has watched over them, their borders, and their homes. The sacrifice a veteran gave was not about dying, although they will do that if it is what is required of them. The sacrifice of a veteran is being away from their family and friends. Some veterans miss out on their babies being born, their wedding anniversaries, weddings of family members, and so much more. They don’t know most of, if any of the people they are protecting, but they go anyway, because they are needed. Lives depend on their loyalty.

These men and women deserve our respect and that is what today is all about. It is a day to remind our veterans that we are grateful for their service, and happy that they were able to return to us and to their family members. War is a horrible thing, and no one really wants to be so far away from home fighting in a war they didn’t start, and one they wish hadn’t ever taken place. Unfortunately, evil exists in our world, and because it does, soldiers are a vital part of our security. God knew that soldiers would have to be people of honor and dedication, with a strong sense of duty and love for their fellow man. They would have to be people of courage and bravery…able to bite back the fear that dwells all around them. God knew the kind of people they would have to be…heroes. And that is what every veteran is, was, and always will be…a hero. Today is Veteran’s Day. It is a day to honor those who have given so much to keep us free. Thank you all for your great service. God bless you…every one of you.

War is a really horrific thing for soldiers to go through, and closure comes in different forms for different soldiers. Returning to the battlefield is a way to find closure for many veterans. It is also a way for solders to keep the friendships they made at a time when their life depended on their fellow soldiers. Countless numbers of men have returned to places like the beaches of Normandy, France to see that place again, where so many lost their lives. Some soldiers didn’t leave the place they fought in their war. Vietnam was that way to a degree.

The Civil War was unique in that when the veterans decided to have their reunion, they wanted to, of course renew old friendships with those they shared a common bond, but they also wanted to make their reunion a way to bring the north and south back together again. The Gettysburg, Pennsylvania reunion was the largest of these events, and so made headline news around the world. The event took place in 1913 at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The Civil War was unique in that all participants were citizens of the United States. Brother fought against brother, and family members against family members. The reunion was a chance to repair those horribly broken relationships for all the men who were still alive at the reunion, which was held on the 50th anniversary of the battle. General H.S. Huidekoper, a Gettysburg Veteran of the 150th PA., was the man behind the idea of making it a gathering of both Northern and Southern Veterans on the 50th Anniversary of the battle. With the state of Pennsylvania, acting as host, $400,000 was set aside to finance the event. The Federal Government added $195,000 and the volunteer services of 1,500 officers and enlisted men. The event was five years in the planning, with Veteran groups throughout the nation helping to make it happen.

The Veterans who were still alive were aging, and because of the reunion, they were able not only to renew the friendships they had, but new friendships were born, and old wounds healed as well. The youngest Veteran, Colonel John C. Clem (known as the Shiloh drummer boy), was 62 years old. The oldest Veteran was 112 years of age. A total of 55,000 veterans attended the event, representing the half million living Confederate and Union Veterans. Of the 55,000 men, 22,103 came from Pennsylvania, and of those, 303 were Confederate. The smallest delegation came from New Mexico…one, a Union Veteran.

The event…one I wish I could have seen, saw over 5,000 tents, covering 280 acres in the middle of the battlefield, where so many had lost their lives. It was almost as if they were there too…giving their approval. Distinguished guests had come to give speeches and presentations. General Daniel Sickles, representing the III Corps at Gettysburg where he lost his leg, was the only corps commander present. On behalf of the battle leaders were the daughter of General Meade and the grandchildren of Generals Longstreet, A.P. Hill and Pickett.

The reunion lasted a full week. The men ate well and swapped stories, cried and laughed. In all 688,000 meals were served by two thousand cooks and helpers. Amazingly and considering the age and health of the Veterans, along with the hot, sultry weather, there were only nine Veterans who did not survive the week, a number well below the normal mortality rate for that day. Perhaps it was the exhilaration of the joining of old friends, reliving days of their youth, hearing the infamous Rebel Yell resound across the battlefield, or reenacting Pickett’s charge to have the Stars and Bars meet the trefoil of Hancock’s II Corps once more that had lengthened their lives.

In the most stunning moment of the event…on the fourth of July at high noon, a great silence fell over the battlefield, as the church bells began to toll. Buglers of the blue and gray prepared to play the mournful tune of Taps one last time. The guns of Gettysburg shook the ground, signaling the end of the weeklong event. When I visited Gettysburg many years later, I was surprised by exactly how that place felt. You could feel the atmosphere there all those years later. It is hallowed ground. You feel like you should whisper…or better yet just be silent. I have never felt that way before, or since.

And though many eloquent speeches were given at Gettysburg that week, none expressed what these Veterans took away from this experience better than a scene witnessed at the train station: “Nearly all of the men had said their good-byes and headed for home. On the station platform a former Union soldier from Oregon and a Louisiana Confederate were taking leave of each other. They shook hands and embraced, but neither seemed able to find the words to express his feelings. Then an idea seemed to strike both men at once. In a simple act, which seemed to say everything they felt the pair took off their uniforms and exchanged them. The Yankee went home in Rebel gray, the Confederate in Union blue.” The above quote is an excerpt from “Gettysburg: The 50th Anniversary Encampment,” by Abbott M. Gibney, Civil War Times Illustrated, October 1970.

Mikhail Tukhachevsky saw it coming, really. Sometimes it’s rather sad to be right about certain things. Tukhachevsky had been nicknamed the “Red Napoleon,” meaning that he was a popular Soviet military leader in Stalin’s Red Army. Tukhachevsky had no idea just how much more important the ideology would be to Stalin, than loyalty, ability, or anything else.

After his service in World War I of 1914-1917 and in the Russian Civil War of 1917-1923, from 1920 to 1921 Tukhachevsky commanded the Soviet Western Front in the Polish–Soviet War. He was moving up the ranks, and with the Soviet forces under his command, he successfully repelled the Polish forces from Western Ukraine, driving them back into Poland. Nevertheless, the Red Army suffered defeat outside of Warsaw, and the war ended in a Soviet defeat.

Tukhachevsky went on to serve as chief of staff of the Red Army from 1925 through 1928, as assistant in the People’s Commissariat of Defense after 1934, and as commander of the Volga Military District in 1937. He achieved the rank of Marshal of the Soviet Union in 1935. Still, all of that did not protect him, in fact it put him in more danger, because he was just a little way under Stalin, and that was not going to bode well for him.

Tukhachevsky was arrested in 1936, suspected of being a German spy. The charges included Tukhachevsky’s supposed plot to overthrow Stalin. After he was arrested, the guards coerced a confession out of him. This was at the very beginning of The Great Terror, a term which historians have borrowed from the French Revolution. It refers to the paroxysm of state-organized bloodshed that overwhelmed the Communist Party and Soviet society during the years 1936-1938. It was also known as the Great Purges.

During this time, Stalin actually had over a million of his own soldiers killed for imagined wrongs. Stalin was, in reality, half crazy. He was known to pluck a live chicken, just to see the reaction from his men. It wasn’t a really big stretch to move to killing soldiers or civilians, so the Great Terror wasn’t too far out there for him. As for Tukhachevsky, Stalin sentenced him to death in March 1938. He was executed on June 12, 1937. Even the men who had to judge the soldiers in those “sham” trials, were not free from danger. One of them, Ivan Belov said, “Tomorrow, I shall be put in the same place.” Belov was right. He was arrested on January 7, 1938. He was later executed as well. I can’t imagine how insane Stalin must have been. When you think about it, most of the men and women who were under Stalin’s rule, were too terrified to be disloyal.

The hardest part about being a commander in any war situation is that moment when you have to tell a soldier’s family that they have been killed in action. It’s even easier to tell them that their soldier is missing, because at least then they have hope. The only thing that could possibly be harder than telling a soldiers family that they have been killed is to tell sibling soldiers’ family that they have been killed. That is the lot that fell to President Abraham Lincoln, according to legend, on November 21, 1864, except it came to him in spades. On that day, Lincoln composed a letter to Lydia Bixby, a widow and mother of five men, all of whom had been killed in the Civil War. It was a completely tragic state of affairs, and so made national news when a copy of the letter was published in the Boston Evening Transcript on November 25. It was signed by “Abraham Lincoln.” Oddly, the original letter has never been found, so it continues to be “legend” to this day.

After expressing his condolences to Mrs Bixby on the death of her five sons, who had fought to preserve the Union in the Civil War, Lincoln goes on to express his regrets on how “weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming.” He then continued with a prayer that “our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement [and leave you] the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours, to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of Freedom.”

Historians continue to debate the authorship of the letter, and the authenticity of copies printed between 1864 and 1891. Nevertheless, at that time, copies of presidential messages were often published and then sold as souvenirs. Many historians and archivists agree that the original letter was probably written by Lincoln’s secretary, John Hay. As to Mrs Bixby’s loss, scholars have since discovered that only two of her sons actually died fighting during the Civil War. A third was honorably discharged and a fourth was dishonorably thrown out of the Army. The fifth son’s fate is unknown, but it is assumed that he deserted or died in a Confederate prison camp. The facts in this case seem to show that sometimes Presidents are given misinformation, resulting in heartbreaking mistakes. If Mrs Bixby did receive this letter, it is my opinion that she quite likely fainted on the spot, and then to find out later that the president had been given wrong information that caused him, gentle man that he was, to feel the need to write this particular letter himself, rather than letting the commanding officer be the bearer of such bad news.

I’m sure that upon finding that there had been an error, President Lincoln was appropriately appalled, but at that point there was not much to do about it. The letter had been sent, and to bring up the additional facts, especially the son that was thrown out of the army, would have only made matters worse. In addition, they did not know where the missing son was, and possibly didn’t know for sure where the others were either, so it made sense to leave well enough alone. Still, I’m sure their mother would like to have known where her sons really were. While this situation was possibly, or at least partially, an awful mistake, it is still the hardest part of the job of commander, and one that is usually felt very deeply by those who have had to write such a letter.

Our Veterans…the cream of the crop. The strong and the brave. Those ones, with courage to last for days. We really cannot say enough about our brave fighting mem and women, who are willing to give up time with family and friends, to go out and fight, sometimes giving their lives so that other people…often unknown to them can live free. There should be a day to honor them. How could we not have such a day? It would be unthinkable. And so, today, we honor them. Those who served and came home again…some to face disability, PTSD, and sadness over the ones who didn’t make it home. We honor them, because they did what we were unable to do. While we sit at home, hopefully praying for our fighting men and women, they bravely took to the battleground, in the air, on land, and sea. Yes, not all served in wartime, but at any moment, all of them knew that it could become wartime.

I can’t say what it is that makes a soldier, because each probably has their own reasons for enlisting, but before they become a soldier, each has to make a decision that they will serve their country and willingly go wherever they are told, often without having a say in the matter. Some assignments are great, taking the soldier and family to exotic places, but some are so dangerous that the soldier cannot take his/her family along because it would be unsafe for them. Still, dangerous or not, the soldier bravely goes, and tries to be a credit to his/her uniform.

I am very proud of our veterans. They have served this country proudly. They took orders when they knew it could mean they lose their lives. That is a rare thing these days, when civil unrest is the norm. Many people would never consider a life or even an enlistment period, because they don’t think they would be appreciated. They don’t want to risk coming home only to be vilified, when in reality, they are the heroes. Veterans Day is a day to celebrate the soldiers who faced it all, and came back home to their families. To all of you…thank you for your service, and Happy Veterans Day!!

When it became necessary to improve the condition of the wounded soldiers during a war, 12 nations adopted The Geneva Convention of 1864 for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick of Armies in the Field during a meeting in Geneva. Basically, the agreement, which had been advocated by Swiss humanitarian Jean-Henri Dunant, provided for the neutrality of medical personnel, so they could provide care to the sick and wounded in times of war, without considering the nation the soldier came from. It’s hard for me to think of refusing a soldier care because he fought for the enemy. He is still a human being, and still needs care. Nevertheless, there were times when the medics were not allowed to care for enemy troops.

When the proposal was adopted, is was necessary to design an international emblem to mark medical personnel and supplies. In honor of Dunant’s nationality, a red cross on a white background…the Swiss flag in reverse…was chosen. Most of us have seen it, in person or on television. The MASH units had the symbol on the top of their tents. Military ambulances had it on the top of the unit. The organization became known as the International Committee of the Red Cross. Of course, we know it as the Red Cross. After a time many nations formed their own branches of the Red Cross.

Clara Barton founded the American chapter after hearing about the Red Cross in Geneva, Switzerland. In 1869. Barton went to Europe and became involved in the work of the International Red Cross during the Franco-Prussian War. After the war, she was determined to bring the organization to America. Barton became President of the American branch of the society, known as the American National Red Cross in May 1881 in Washington. Barton had connections in New York, so she opened the first chapters there. Money was donated by John D Rockefeller and four others to help create a national headquarters near the White House. Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist and a friend of Barton’s, offered advice and support as she sought to establish the American Chapter of Red Cross. As Register of Deeds for the District of Columbia, Douglass also signed the American Red Cross’ original Articles of Incorporation.

Barton led one of the group’s first major relief efforts, a response to the 1881 Thumb Fire in Michigan’s Thumb region. Over 5,000 people were left homeless. The next major disaster was the Johnstown Flood on May 31, 1889. Over 2,209 people died and thousands more were injured in or near Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in one of the worst disasters in US history. The American National Red Cross, became an organization that was highly respected. Over the years they have done much to provide humanitarian aid to victims of wars and natural disasters in congruence with the International Red Cross. In 1901, Jean-Henri Dunant was awarded the first Nobel Peace Prize.

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