NORTH LIBERTY– Veterans Day was declared a national holiday– originally Armistice Day– in 1919, to mark the signing of the agreement that ended WWI.
But for veterans of war, it is never over.
Even those who serve in our nation’s military in times of peace know loss, hardship, and the strength of a fraternity that no amount of time or separation can weaken.
That familiarity with sacrifice was evident during the North Liberty American Legion Auxiliary’s annual Veterans Day dinner, held Nov. 15 at the South Slope Community Room in North Liberty.
Also evident was gratitude.
This year’s guest speaker was Army Pvt. 1st Class Combat Medic Vanessa Moore, just 20 years old. A graduate of Solon High School, Moore served on active duty in the Nuristan province of Afghanistan from November 2010 until July 2011. She earned an Army Achievement Medal and a Combat Medic Badge for her service, and remains on active duty until 2016.
Also speaking was Moore’s friend and fellow Combat Medic for the Red Bull Battalion in the 133rd C Company, Pvt. Cheyenne Griggs of Washington, on active duty until 2017.
Pvts. Moore and Griggs presented photos and video footage of their experience in the mountains of Afghanistan, including photographs of the aftermath of a rocket attack on one of the trucks they and other troops occupied.
“At first, no one had faith in our abilities because we were women,” said Moore. “It was a proud moment to have the guys come up to us and say, ‘We’re so proud of you. You give females in the Army a good name.”
Moore described the people, military personnel, conditions and landscape of the part of Afghanistan where she was stationed.
“It is a life-changing experience to wake up to alarms and know you have to get into fighting position immediately,” she said.
It is those experiences, said follow-up speaker retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert Sentman, that stick with soldiers forever.
“Vanessa has now joined the group that won’t take a million dollars for what they’ve seen, and won’t give five cents to do it all over again,” Sentman said.
Former U.S. Army Sgt. Roy Romans, North Liberty resident and current administrative officer to the chief of staff Iowa City VA Health Care System, understands that sentiment. Romans is a post-Vietnam era veteran (1982-88), who was stationed both stateside and overseas, enlisting as medic and then finishing his term of service as a nurse. Romans’ extended family has a strong military tradition; his father and an uncle served in Vietnam, and his brother recently returned from Iraq. His wife, Deb, was a Major in the Army Nurse Corps, a Gulf War veteran serving from 1990-97, and has been a member of the Individual Ready Reserve until this year. His brother-in-law is a career Army Ranger, and his mother’s family served in the German military during WWII.
Romans gave an emotional reading of the poem, “The Vacant Chair,” written by H.S. Washburn in 1861 to commemorate Lt. John William Grout of the 15th Massachusetts Infantry, who was killed at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff.
There were tears throughout the room as Deb Romans draped a black flag with the well-recognized POW/MIA Prisoner of War/Missing in Action) symbol across an empty chair sitting on the stage, and Roy read the solemn words:
“We shall meet but we shall miss him. There will be one vacant chair. We shall linger to caress him, while we breathe our ev’ning prayer.”
Later, Roy Romans tried to explain the depth of emotion the poem can evoke for veterans and their families.
“It’s an acknowledgement that they are still with us, even if they are not,” he said. “It’s the sense of remembering that when we are all gathered and enjoying our time together, let’s not forget there is an empty chair, there because their son put the honor of the nation and service and sacrifice even above his own life and welfare.”
Romans noted the nation’s POW/MIA movement only gained momentum in the early 1980s, during the Reagan administration.
“There was finally a recognition that we had lost 53,000 people in Vietnam, and almost 3,000 were to official POW or MIA status,” Romans said. He believes people became more aware of the POW/MIA movement because of high-profile veterans like Navy officer Vice Admiral James Stockdale, who was a 1992 candidate for Vice President on the Independent ticket, and former presidential candidate Senator John McCain, both of whom were also prisoners of war.
And, Romans added, “if you run the numbers, it’s not like the POW/MIA issue ended with Vietnam. We have had several, right up until the current war on terror.”
It’s that kind of sacrifice that touches Romans when he reads the poem aloud.
“I think people don’t realize that when you join military, you are basically writing a check made out to the American people, up to and including your life,” he said. “So whether you serve in combat zone or not, it’s always a reality that you could. That mindset is there, and the camaraderie and attachment to the people in your unit is always there.”
And whether a casualty of war occurs in one’s own family or one’s platoon, the loss is equally staggering and painful.
“It’s one thing to appreciate someone’s sacrifice and their dedication and duty and honor, but it’s another thing to experience it, and to have seen someone give their life for it. It deeply personalizes it.”