On this Veterans Day, many Americans are taking time to honor those who have served in the military, including those who gave their lives.
Public sentiment toward military service has changed for the better in the eyes of many veterans over recent years. Even their own perceptions of service have shifted, and they are more willing to discuss their time in combat.
Towanda Elementary School's gymnasium was filled Friday with children watching the American Legion Color Guard honor the five branches of the military.
This was also an interactive veterans appreciation as children sang patriotic songs and gave small American flags to veterans, families and friends, invited as a thank you.
Robert Matherly of Kenney spent 12 years in the Army and had multiple deployments to Germany. He says the military lineage in his family runs deep. Matherly works at a mechanics shop in Bloomington. He's noticed in the three decades since he left the military a greater sense of public gratitude.
“It’s a lot better than it used to be,” Matherly said. “Everywhere I go if they know I’ve been in the military they always tell me ‘thank you.’ It’s changed a lot for the better.”
The American Legion presented school principal Scott Vogel with an American flag folded into a triangle, the tribute to a fallen soldier. Several years ago, he received the flag in honor of his grandfather who fought in World War II and had recently died.
Vogel said the annual veterans’ appreciation precedes his arrival at the school. It's a tradition he's eager to continue. He wants stories of service to pass down from one generation to the next. Vogel admitted that's something he didn't give himself the chance to do when his grandfather was still alive.
“As I got older, I wanted to know more, but it was one of those things where I was timid asking questions because I didn’t want him to relive situations that he may not have wanted to relive,” Vogel conceded. “Now I regret not asking more questions.”
Vogel's grandfather was not alone in his reluctance to share military experiences later in civilian life. Ron Rodriguez spent four years in the Marines on active duty then two years in the reserves. His niece attends Towanda Elementary School.
Rodriguez recently retired from a career in law enforcement, but still helps veterans at a VA facility in Milwaukee and helps prepare military recruits for boot camp. He said the reason most vets didn't want to talk was clear.
“I think back in the early days veterans were not really appreciated as they are now,” Rodriguez said.
Much of that sentiment stems from Vietnam as America struggled to come to terms with a war many didn't agree with waging and that it didn't win.
The United States remains involved overseas in conflicts with complicated and still uncertain outcomes in Iraq and Afghanistan, America's longest foreign war. But veterans who have served in these wars say they feel much more appreciated.
Ron Bonesz of Normal has been in the military for 25 years. He's served in Iraq twice and two years ago he was sent to Afghanistan just days before the birth of his second son. With just three to five years left before he plans to retire, the 47-year-old Bonesz figured there's about a one-in-five chance he could get deployed again.
Bonesz is an international affairs officer with the Joint Forces Headquarters of the Illinois Army National Guard in Springfield. He says he too sees a cultural shift toward how U.S. soldiers are perceived. He dates the turning point to the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001.
“Prior to 2001 it had been a while since the country had been at war and then it just ramped up so quickly with both Afghanistan and Iraq and so many serve members serving at one time for such an extended period of time, it affected a lot of families,” Bonesz said.
Nearly two decades after the towers fell, as two of America's longest wars linger and with U.S. casualties in the tens of thousands and deaths in the thousands, Bonesz said Americans have learned to separate U.S. policy from the young men and women on the ground who are responsible for carrying out that policy.
“Personal feelings aside, their family members or people they know were being deployed,” he said. “Agree with it, don’t agree with it still support the people that are doing the job.”
Stan Martin of Normal said he felt he was just doing his job when he was deployed to Iraq near the start of the war in 2003. He was more worried about winning hearts and minds in Iraq than here as some Iraqis saw the Stars and Stripes as invaders and occupiers. He says spending 15 months dealing with vastly different cultural norms, including the oppression of women, was a challenge. He was only 22.
“It kind of just makes me look at how naive I was back then and how I looked at the world,” Martin said.
Martin said he was much more prepared for the culture shock eight years later when he went to Afghanistan. He said it gave him more appreciation for what he had left behind at home.
“When I was over there in a third-world country makes you realize how good we have it in the U.S. and how a lot of portions of the rest of the world are just completely different,” Martin said.
Martin is now a captain with the National Guard. He is 20 years in. That's a benchmark to get a military pension and benefits. He owns and manages a trophy business in Normal.
Martin said he has had to help some military colleagues reintegrate into civilian life, though he is doing just fine.
Each of the veterans say the military has done more to provide them with resources when coming home, specifically helping with medical, social, and emotional needs. Illinois Army National Guard's Ron Bonesz said it's not always perfect.
“Veterans are getting attention, they are getting what they need,” Bonesz said. “Can service be better sometimes? Yeah. That can be a statement that’s made about anything throughout the country, but based on the past it’s getting better.
Martin said he hopes those additional resources will encourage more veterans to come forward to seek help, because some are still reluctant.
“I think the biggest part is the stigma of not wanting to speak out,” Martin said. “I think that’s the hardest part to get over, so if you are having a problem reintegrating or struggling with something there’s programs there to help you and the biggest thing you can do is reach out.”
Veterans Helping Veterans
Veterans say the greatest asset available to them is each other. They say the camaraderie between fellow soldiers is unlike any connection they will ever have in civilian life because it takes a soldier to understand a soldier. And they want to take advantage of that while they are still around as Vietnam era veterans die by the hundreds each day.
Martin came to that realization when he recently attended the funeral of a comrade.
“Everyone there I hadn’t seen for years,” Martin said. “It’s a lot quicker to pick it up with your battle buddies that you’ve served with over the years. You just have a stronger bond serving and going through a lot tougher of times.”
That connection between soldiers holds now matter how many years have passed.
“I don’t need to talk to all the people I deployed with day in and day out,” Ron Bonesz said. “It can be weeks, months, even years, but the next time that we do talk it’s like it was yesterday.”
Towanda Elementary principal Scott Vogel said he hopes veterans keep talking, not just among themselves, but to young people.
That's why he thinks school assemblies to honor veterans are just as important as anything students might learn in the classroom.
“Sometimes the parents ask, ‘What did you learn today?’ ‘Oh, I didn’t learn anything,’” Vogel said. “Our goal is when they go home the parents ask them a question and they are like, ‘Yeah there was something going on today, there was a bugler,’ whoever was there and it sparks conversation.
“They might actually learn that somebody in their family has served in the military or are currently serving and be able to have that conversation.”
Vogel said that's the only way to ensure the veterans sacrifices won't be forgotten.
Several McLean County schools are hosting Veterans Day observances Monday, including Illinois State University and Heartland Community College. The American Legion Post in Bloomington hosted its annual observance Monday morning outside the McLean County Museum of History in Bloomington.
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