Vietnam veteran Ralph William spoke of his family’s service to country and community at the Veterans Day ceremony in Clintonville.
“Ninety-three years ago today, on Nov. 11, 1918, my Dad was sitting in a front trench somewhere on a European battlefield waiting for the command, ‘Over the Top.’ When that command was given, troops climbed out of their trenches and charged across something called no-man’s land to attack the front enemy trench,” Williams said. “Of course, the enemy would try to stop the attack with everything they had-including machine gun and rifle fire, artillery rounds, and grenades. Needless to say, casualties in this type of warfare were extremely high.
“On that particular day the attack had been postponed twice, and the men in my dad’s unit had been assured it would not be postponed a third time,” Williams said. “But the command never came that day. Instead the men received word that the war was over. That was the first Armistice Day-and my dad was not only there, he had a front row seat.
“World War I was supposed to be the “War to End All Wars.” Of course, it didn’t work out that way, and in 1954 President Eisenhower changed the name to Veteran’s Day so that we could honor those who served in all wars,” commented Williams. “How do we find the words to properly express our thanks for the unselfish actions of our nation’s men and women in uniform? Only if we realize how horrible war is can we even begin to appreciate the sacrifice made by our veterans. As Abe Lincoln stated, ‘War, at best, is terrible.’
“As some of you know, my son, Ryan, is the Fond du Lac police officer who was shot twice in a standoff on March 20 of this year,” Williams stated. “Two things that took place immediately after that incident are relevant to my presentation today. The first will, I said, help you understand the horror of war. For the first two days of Ryan’s recovery in intensive care, he was heavily sedated. Every couple hours or so he would wake up for a few minutes and then go back to sleep again. Because he had a breathing tube down his throat at that time, he was unable to talk to us when he was awake. However, he was able to communicate by writing messages to us on a white board.
“On the first day, I was sitting beside his bed during one of the times he was alert. He looked over at me for a long time and signaled that he wanted to write something on the board,” said Williams. “This is what he wrote: ‘No offense, Dad, but I’m not supposed to die before you do.’ He was absolutely right. And to me that is the best example I can think of to explain why war is so horrible. As an ancient Greek historian wrote, ‘In peace, sons bury their fathers; in war, fathers bury their sons.’
“In spite of their horrors, wars continue and members of our armed forces are continually being put in harm’s way. Nineteenth century British philosopher John Stuart Mill summed up the necessity of this special group of people when he wrote: ‘War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things….The person who has nothing for which he Is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men [and I will update this by adding women] than himself,'” stated Williams. “Mill had it right. Fortunately, for all of us, the United States has been blessed throughout its history by many such better men and women.
“Someone once said, ‘In war, there are no unwounded soldiers.’ Counting those now serving, there are 23 million living veterans from WWII to the present. Let’s take a brief look at some of the costs to those who thought our nation important enough to endure long separations from families and withstand career interruptions,” continued Williams. “Did you know, for example, that 23 percent of America’s homeless are veterans-and that 89 percent of these homeless veterans were honorably discharged from service; 47 percent served during the Vietnam War. About 140,000 vets are now serving time in our country’s jails. Perhaps you have heard that Brown County has just set up a Veteran’s Court in recognition of the unique problems returning service members face. The truth is, as these figures show, we do not have an adequate safety net in place for our veterans.
“Since September 11, 2001, over 2 million service members have been deployed,” stated Williams. “More than 900,000 (that’s 42 percent) were deployed twice or more. Over half (52 percent) of veterans seeking veterans administration health care do so because of a mental health condition; 30 percent have potential post traumatic stress syndrome.
“So, how do we truly honor these men and women? First of all, we must never forget what they have done for us. President Calvin Coolidge said, ‘The nation which forgets its defenders will itself be forgotten.’ It should not have taken 59 years to build a proper memorial in our nation’s capital for WWII veterans-or 42 years to build the Korean War memorial,” said Williams. “We can-and must-do a better job of remembering the sacrifices made by our veterans.
“The second way to honor these men and women is make sure that their efforts were not in vain-that the rights and freedoms they gained or preserved for us are never lost. It doesn’t take much effort for us to accomplish this. All we have to do is practice those freedoms which were purchased at such a tremendous price,” Williams said. “The exercise of our rights brings with it some responsibilities besides just voting if we are eligible. We must also tolerate and protect the rights of others and we must help make intelligent decisions for our nation. That means, by the way, that even in times of budget cutting we must keep our end of the promise to provide health care, benefits, and opportunities for returning service members.
“Today, my audience is made up of two distinct groups-veterans and non-veterans. I want to close with a message for each of these groups. I will start with the veterans,” said Williams. “We are an elite group. Fewer than 10 percent of this country’s citizens qualify. The entrance requirements are extremely rigorous. They require an inordinate amount of sacrifice. But that sacrifice is something we can be truly proud of. I recently found out that during the Civil War General Sherman said he would rather have 1,000 Wisconsin soldiers than 4,000 from any other state. Dwight Eisenhower was said to have been prouder of being a soldier than he was of being the President of the United States. Several years ago at a Veteran’s Day assembly at our middle school we had representatives from each war fought in the 20th Century on our stage-from WWI to the Persian Gulf War. Joe Lapp, a Persian Gulf War veteran, when asked to speak said simply, ‘It is an honor to share the stage with these other people.’ That is the way I feel today. It is truly an honor to have my name alongside many of yours on the wall behind me and to call you fellow veterans.
“And finally, I have a personal message for the nonveterans in the audience,” said Williams. “Thank you for being here. Your presence shows that you truly understand our nation’s debt to the people we honor today. As we try to appropriately honor our veterans let me remind you that true appreciation is expressed through deeds as well as words. Let me elaborate with a final personal experience from my son’s recovery from his wounds.
“On Wednesday, March 23, Ryan’s breathing tube was removed so he could finally talk. On that day the EMT’s, flight nurse and helicopter pilot-all who had a critical role in saving Ryan’s life came as a group to visit him in Theda Clark’s ICU. What do you say to the people who saved your son’s life? There are no words that convey what you want to say-just as there are no words to adequately convey our gratitude for the people we honor today,” commented Williams. “But, dog gone it, even though you know the words are inadequate, you still make the attempt. That is what I would like you to do the next time you run into a veteran. Tell him or her, ‘Thank you. But please take it one step further. Do what I and every member of my family did with the EMT’s that day. When you thank a vet also give him or her a hug. At the very least, our veterans deserve from each of us a sincere thank you and a hug.”