Days before this Veterans Day, my wife was at a local store, standing in the checkout line. A little boy turned around and commented on my wife’s hat that displayed the American flag. The little boy looked up to his mom and said “Look mom. There is the flag. That’s bad.”

Needless to say, Cheryl, a three-time Blue Star mom and an advocate for veterans and military families, was taken aback.

She came home and told her story. After we calmed down, we reminded ourselves we are blessed to know many who serve this country and our flag.

We are a military family. Three of our children are military. All three served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Two continue to serve. We know many veteran families. We have seen courage and sacrifice time and again.

Politics does not influence our patriotism. It is the warriors we have known that spark our pride and love of country. Let me tell you about one of them. His memory is ineradicable and a source of pride.

While in the military, I worked with a guy I will call "Joe." We both previously served in infantry units, so we had the same view of the world. Any grunt reading this article will know what I mean.

One day early in the week, Joe didn’t make it to work. I gave him a call from headquarters. He answered the phone and told me that he had broken his arm. “What did you do? Did you slip on the ice?” His response was “No, I just picked up the snow shovel and my arm snapped.”

With false bravado, both of us bantered back and forth about how clumsy he was. But we knew the reality.

The wounds he suffered in Vietnam came back to do more damage; the killer, Agent Orange. (Joe contracted multiple myeloma, a cancer of the blood. Cancer cells build up in bone marrow and take over. This is why Joe’s arm snapped in half.)

Joe was hospitalized. For the next few months Joe was literally in the fight for his life. While he fought through the pain; and separated from his family, his promotion to the next higher grade, lieutenant colonel, arrived at headquarters. Knowing Joe was a soldier’s soldier, I contacted his wife and asked if she thought it would be permissible to present Joe with his promotion. She fought through her tears and said he would want that.

Shortly thereafter, I arrived at the hospital, orders in hand, with the lieutenant colonel silver oak leaf in my pocket. I donned the required PPE and walked into Joe’s room.

Joe laid there pale and in a lot of pain. The doctors were feeding morphine into him to deal with pain in his back, ribs and hips. Joe looked at me with a smile through the grimace. (“A smile crushes every tear and hides the pain.”)

There were only a few of us in the room. These important few, his wife and two daughters, watched as their patriot father managed his pain and stood at attention. He looked straight ahead; heels locked. It was then I knew what to do.

I read off the promotion orders; walked up to Joe and pinned his silver oak leaf to his hospital gown. I stood back and Joe smartly saluted. I returned the salute and realized I now had a life memory defining a true warrior.

Joe laid back down and thanked me. And then I thanked him. I held back my tears until I left the room. He died two days later.

Joe is one of many reasons why Cheryl and I remember Veterans Day every day.

Here are a few thoughts.

  • Veterans Day is for those who have yet to return home and for those who never will.
  • Veterans Day is for those who have given so much and have seen a great deal.

Here are a few facts.

  • Veterans make up roughly 11% of the adult homeless population.
  • Close to one-fifth of veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan came home with either major depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • 20 veterans die by suicide each day in America.
  • Most of the returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan have hidden wounds from toxic and hazardous material exposure, TBI (traumatic brain injury) and hearing loss. These are lifelong conditions.

When Veterans Day comes around say “thank you for your service” with true respect and gratitude. And give a helping hand if you can.

Bob Ayotte is a Chanhassen resident and a former Chanhassen city councilor. Ayotte, a retired colonel, served 30 years in the military, later working for 20 years as a government employee in the Department of the Army.

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