Two men who obviously were born in different eras are embracing in a photograph that tells a story the caption just partly describes.
One is a Pearl Harbor survivor, and his eyes don’t even come up to the younger man’s chin. His head is resting against the younger man’s chest, and he looks as though he is about to cry.
The younger man is an Iraq survivor, and he is looking down affectionately at his new friend. He’s wearing a U.S. Marine dress uniform that covers the leg, but not the hand or eye he lost in the explosion of a bomb he was defusing.
Veterans share a bond that nobody else can understand, although some of us can appreciate it.
The government is observing Veterans Day today because Nov. 11 is Saturday. Veterans posts will conduct their services tomorrow.
We watched during one such ceremony at Rocky Gap Veterans Cemetery as a Vietnam veteran knelt in front of a World War II veteran who was in a wheelchair.
The older man said he once had a Purple Heart — the medal nobody wants because you must be wounded to receive it — but had lost it.
“I’ve got two of them, and one is all I really have use for,” said the younger man. He unhooked one of his and pinned it to the older man’s jacket, saying “Here ... you deserve this more than I do.”
Only those who have been there and done that know what it’s like. Many don’t choose to talk about it, but when they do, the rest of us should listen. They may tell us about something they relive each night in their dreams. Their wives say they wake up sweating and screaming.
One of our former editors, an Army medic during World War II, had an armband that bore a Nazi swastika. He would say only that he took it from a German soldier who died while he was trying to save his life. This editor drank himself to death.
Another former employee served in Iraq. He told us what it was like to be shot in the leg with a bullet from an AK-47 rifle and have it tumble downward through his flesh until it lodged in his foot.
John Baca, a Vietnam veteran who visited Cumberland several years ago, received the Medal of Honor because he threw himself onto a hand grenade before it exploded and saved the lives of several other soldiers. He lived to tell about it because he first covered the grenade with his steel helmet.
Robert Hartsock of Flintstone received the Medal of Honor for a similar act in Vietnam, covering a satchel charge with his body to save his platoon commander’s life. Harsock suffered mortal wounds, but lived long enough to put fire down on the enemy until his commander made it to safety.
Baca described what it feels like, to have the whole front of your body peppered with white-hot shrapnel that burns its way into your body until it reaches your bones ... and keeps on burning.
He also told us about the Viet Cong soldier he captured instead of killing, and how they sat around the fire that night, showing each other pictures of the families they left at home.
Not all of our veterans carried guns.
Some were chaplains. We’ve been told that when you think you are about to die, the only remaining comfort you have left is that a man of God is kneeling over you and praying his heart out for you, and you don’t care what his religion is.
We’ve heard stories of medics and corpsmen (Navy personnel serving with the Marines) who use their own bodies to shield wounded men from gunfire while treating them.
Some died for their efforts — including U.S. Army Capt. Sam Umstot, an Army physician’s assistant who attended Keyser High School and graduated from Fort Ashby High. He and a medic, Pfc. Ken Martin of Los Angeles, were killed while giving aid to a wounded soldier under fire.
Nurses are veterans, too, and they’re in a class by themselves. They’ve seen more death than anyone else has. Men have told us what it’s like, to suddenly wake up in a place where it’s safe, and the first thing you see is a woman who’s looking down at you, filled with a determination to help restore your life. Other than your mom, she’s the most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen.
Nov. 10, on its own, is still a special day.
Happy Birthday to those who have served or are serving in the U.S. Marine Corps, which is celebrating its 242nd birthday today and is eight months older than the United States itself.
To all who served: Thank you for our freedom.