As a child, one of my favorite pastimes was playing with toy soldiers. Some of them traveled to church in my mother’s purse to keep me content, but my favorite ones stayed at home, where I spent hours setting them up and having imaginary battles.
They set my imagination free and continued to be companions at home long after Mom quit toting them to church.
Each year when Christmas rolled around, my siblings and I were allowed to look through those huge Sears or JCPenney Christmas catalogues and pick out one item we really wanted. One year in junior high, I told my mother I wanted Fort Apache, a set of toy soldiers and Indians that came complete with a fort and other accessories. She seemed fine with the idea but told me I had to ask my father, who I was quite aware thought I was too old to be playing with such things.
Mom’s request almost made me give up on the idea. But eventually I summoned the courage to ask Dad if I could have Fort Apache as my special Christmas present. And, sure enough, under our Christmas tree that year, tucked way in the back so I had to wait until it was like the last thing to open, I found the exact Fort Apache set I asked for.
While I did not know it at the time, I was at a transitional point in life, advancing from a child to whatever comes next. Before long, girls, music, cars and other things became much more interesting than toy soldiers.
Around the same time I was reading a lot of books about the Civil War and Vietnam War in the school library, and it dawned on me that in a few years I might have to sign up for the draft.
That changed my perception of things. While I liked playing imaginary war games with toy soldiers, the prospect of actually being shot at or having to shoot someone did not seem so appealing. In fact, to be honest, it got the point that I figured if I ever got drafted, I would be a conscientious objector or find some other way to avoid joining the military.
Several decades removed from my teenage years, I feel much different about the whole scenario.
But I know how I felt as a young teenager, which brings me to the point of this column.
Veterans Day is Monday, and I do not believe I owe a larger debt to anyone group of people than those who have served, and are serving, our country, so I can live the way I choose to live.
From our country’s very beginning, men and women have been willing to put their lives on the line, leave the families and the comfortable lives most of them had behind, and answer a greater call. I know some that have made that commitment recently, and they will never know the full depth of my gratitude and respect.
Is it because I once was afraid of that call? Maybe, partly. But it’s much more than that. It’s because I can sleep peacefully at night without the fear of attack. It’s because I can live and raise my family as I see fit. It’s because chills run up and down my spine each time I hear the national anthem or the playing of Taps. It’s because of the pride and dignity I see in soldiers’ eyes. It’s because I know now that serving our country is much different than playing with toys soldiers.
So I ask you this — on this Veterans Day, will you take a moment to think about the price that has been paid so that you can have the freedoms you enjoy? PBS News Hour says the price in lives looks something like this: Revolutionary War, 4,435; War of 1812, 2,260; Mexican War, 13,283; Civil War, 498,332; Spanish-American War, 2,446; World War I, 116,516; World War II, 405,399; Korean War, 54,246; Vietnam War, 90,220; Persian Gulf War, 1,565; War on Terrorism, 6,852. More than 1.1 million total. And that’s not counting all the ones that came home mangled physically, mentally and otherwise.
On Veterans Day, take a moment to think about that. Seriously. Would you be willing to do for them what all of them have done for you?
Jeff Gilliland is the editor of The Times-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 937-402-2522.