By BRADLEY ROBERTSON
Author’s Note: This column first appeared in our 2020 LIVE Lee Veterans Issue.
My birth date is Nov. 11, 1980. This was not by chance but was due to practical thought by my mother. She was a schoolteacher and in true work fashion, she knew she would be off that day, and so I was born.
I remember thinking in elementary school that it was very cool to always be “off” on my birthday. I knew that it was Veterans Day, but I never related to the importance until my older years. I was a typical child of the ’80s and ’90s having skate parties, friends over for cupcakes and once my mother even brought a filmstrip over from her school.
When I was in high school and college, I was too self-absorbed to think anything of the special day I held. It was not until adulthood that I began to clearly see and understand the honor I held in sharing my birthday with our own national heroes, our Veterans.
About six years ago, I made up my mind that I would begin to do something special every year on my birthdate to honor Veterans. I had a tug at my heart to visit the Tuskegee VA hospital and so it became my first agenda. I had no clue where it was or what it was like, I had only heard of it. I had no plan but to speak to Veterans and let them know they are still remembered.
I looked the VA up on Maps in my cell phone and took my young son along with me. We pulled into what appeared to be an old school campus of sorts that you could tell was once a lively and thriving environment. But that day, it appeared empty and desolate except one larger hospital style facility in the very back of the complex.
I parked my car and took Braxton by the hand and walked into the unknown. We spent the next two hours meeting a few of the residents and listening to their stories. Some were very old and had fought long ago in Vietnam, some were still young and had fought recently in the Gulf War or Afghanistan. I was on the verge of tears the entire time; seeing that these men had done a noble thing for me, and they still felt the suffering it took for everyone.
It was a hard reality but one I will never forget.
The following year I decided to run the Ft. Benning Soldier Half Marathon. Previously to this year, I would have called myself a seasoned runner. I used to run often and race often. However, when I chose to run this particular race, I was not “in season”. But I thought to myself, “all the more reason to go. If soldiers can suffer and fight for me, surely I can suffer through 13.1 miles for them?”
And suffer I did, but nothing compared to American Soldiers. The race began with the Pledge of Allegiance and a prayer. I cried the entire time and could not even get out the words. It was moving and I felt the honesty in freedom. I ran along homes of soldiers for miles and miles, waving and saying, “Thank you” when I could. The race ended and I survived through prayer and petition. But in my mind, I knew it was nothing, nothing compared to what our soldiers truly do for our country.
I have attended city events honoring our Veterans as well as the Veterans Day program at my children’s school, Lee-Scott Academy. It’s a gift to see and hear a Veteran speak up about his or her experience. It’s a gift to see old, feeble men stand and salute their flag that is so true to their being. It’s a gift to see a father or mother in uniform stand with their children in school and see what a sacrifice they made. It is all an honor, and you cannot really feel it until you put yourself in it.
My grandfather, John T. Nettles, fought in World War II. He passed away when I was only 15 and I never took the chance or opportunity to speak with him on his US service. However, I feel a close connection to him every year on my birthday. He was the navigator on a bomber airplane in the Pacific Ocean and he won a purple heart. Speaking his truth and story for him is the greatest gift to me.
We are free because others suffered. We are free because lives were killed. We can say freedom over and over and over again, but we will never truly understand it the way our Veterans do.
This year on my birthday, I would like to find a World War II museum to track the path of my grandfather. I would like to learn more of his true story and what that looked like for him and other soldiers. I do not know yet where it will take me, but I’m willing to go.
I encourage all people who are not Veterans to take the time to feel and see the reality of War. What museums are available to visit? Do you know a Veteran personally you can go visit? Is there a local school or city event you can go to? Do something, do anything. Just be sure you take time to honor our American Soldiers.