By Frederick Osborn III
Like many men my age, I was drafted into the U.S. Army and served in the Republic of Vietnam for a year. The experience had a great impact on my life.
For a while after I returned home in 1968, I would wear my handsome Army dress uniform to show how proud I was of our country and my service. Big mistake.
I was often shocked and saddened to see the extent to which my service to our country was not appreciated — wearing the uniform would engender mutterings and even outright fury — twice I was actually spit upon by finger-shaking civilians who seemed to be saying that the unpopular war in Vietnam was my fault.
So you can imagine how important it has been over the last 45 years for me to be to be granted some recognition for the risks I’d taken and the tasks I’d accomplished.
Last week, my twin granddaughters invited me to their concert at the Garrison School, at which veterans would be called up and thanked with a song that the children had learned. I proudly attended, and my heart was soaring as I heard the names of parents and family members of the students who had served in the U.S. armed forces, each ex-soldier, sailor, marine and airman striding up to the front of the room amidst thunderous applause.
My name wasn’t called. I was surprised at the depth of my hurt and anger. Images came flooding back of people yelling at me, deriding me for being a fool to allow myself to be drafted, chanting anti-war slogans just because I was near.
My wife said the children had asked that any veteran whose name might have been left off the list to please join the group at the front. But a legacy of my war service is bad hearing, and I was stewing in self-pity and didn’t hear it.
The song they sang was wonderful, and I just wished they’d been singing it to me!
Returning home that night, I was trembling in anger, shame, and frustration.
The concert managers had made a point, though, of inviting veterans to a ceremony the next morning at which the children of the school would make a more formal tribute to veterans. I changed my schedule to attend.
It was a lovely sunny morning, a light breeze almost enough to flutter the listless American flag at our lovely little school.
About 12 other “elderly” veterans joined me outdoors as the students trooped out of the building in age order, each child holding a small white flag, which he or she had decorated with symbols, words, and drawings to show their appreciation for those who’d served our country.
Faculty member Mike Williams asked the veterans to lead the children in the Pledge of Allegiance, and I swear the American flag came to life in a gust of wind as we said the famous words.
And then the children planted their flags in the lawn along Route 9D at the school’s entrance. There were over 200 of them, the older children going first so they could help the younger ones push their sticks into the soft ground.
When they’d reassembled, Mr. Williams asked the children to look at the veterans — “Take a good look. These are the men who fought for your freedoms. It’s because of them that you’re able to go to this great school in this great country.”
Then Mr. Williams asked the veterans to look at the children — “Take a good look. These students are the future of this country. They are the reason you served our country. They are proud and extremely grateful for what you have done.”
I basked in the tribute, tears welling up in thanks that they had thanked me.
The school had given the students a tactile activity to help each express gratitude in a highly individual way. Then, by planting the flags together, the kids made a symbolic and collective statement of appreciation with an impact and meaning far greater than the sum of its parts.
There was a reception afterwards at which the eighth graders served refreshments and mingled with the veterans. My older granddaughter was part of that group, and she presented me with the words to the song that her sisters had been sung the night before, saying, “This was sung for you.”
I am overflowing with thanks to the PTA and the faculty and staff at the Garrison School for developing this novel and powerful experience for their students.
The impact on them was only exceeded by the impact on me and the other veterans.
Thank you for reminding us that our sacrifices were worthwhile.