A year ago, while out shopping for groceries, I encountered an elderly serviceman manning an American Legion table near the front of the store. As it was Memorial Day weekend, he was trading red, tissue paper poppies for donations to the nation’s largest wartime veterans service organization*.
It has become a habit: I fish out a buck or two, grab a poppy, make the trade, nod politely and go on my way. (Indeed, the only way I can tell my white VW Jetta from the 300,000 other white Jettas in the Las Vegas Valley is by the three or four fake poppies entwined around the rearview mirror.)
However, this time, for some reason, I stuffed my bills in the jar, grabbed my poppy... and stopped. Perhaps the holiday reminded me of my late father, Lt. Joseph D. McKim, US Army, who served in Europe in the waning months of WWII. For some reason, I felt compelled to ask the guy behind the poppies how he fared during the war.
I know that Memorial Day is the day reserved for remembering the people who died while serving in the armed forces. But that doesn't preclude speaking to those who served and survived.
So instead of just tossing a buck in the jar and exiting with my flower, I ask the gentleman about his war experience. He seemed slightly surprised that I had made the inquiry, but he readily summarized his tour of duty. It turns out he was U.S. Navy, WWII (no surprise there, as he looked to be 90ish), and he was on the USS Levy, a destroyer escort that plied the waters of the Pacific from '43 until the end of the war. I told him that my old man served on the other side of the globe, while he was in the Pacific. I didn't press him for any further details. We exchanged pleasantries and I was on my way.
As I made my way to the car, I vowed that I will make it a habit try to chat with these fellows on the way out of the store, even if just for a moment or two. I wasn't a few minutes down the road before I regretted not taking a selfie with the ancient sailor. And I think I'll go onto Facebook and Twitter and encourage all to stop for an extra moment this weekend-- in the grocery store, after the parade or at a barbecue-- and have a chat or take a picture (with permission, of course) of a vet. And keep in mind that those who served in WWII are dying at a distressing clip--the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs reports that, of the 16 million men and women who served during that war, only 558,000 survive as of 2017!
Engaging in a conversation with a vet is a good way to honor this or any other day and a way of showing appreciation for our nation's fighting men and women.
And don't forget to buy that poppy!
* The American Legion was chartered and incorporated by Congress in 1919 as a patriotic veterans organization devoted to mutual helpfulness. It is the nation’s largest wartime veterans service organization, committed to mentoring youth and sponsorship of wholesome programs in our communities, advocating patriotism and honor, promoting strong national security, and continued devotion to our fellow servicemembers and veterans. -- From Legion.org, the American Legion website.