Veteran’s Day, the day the nation honors and remembers those who’ve served the country in the armed forces, was set on the 11th day of the 11th month. That's the moment the guns fell silent at the end of what was then known as the “Great War” in 1918. Since then, Americans have fought in many other wars and served in peacetime. Each year an event at Western Michigan University brings veterans together with young people who are just beginning their military careers.
Veterans, many wearing baseball caps reflecting service in the Second World War, Korea, Vietnam and other conflicts, filed through the food line at Western’s Army ROTC building a few days before Veteran's Day. After they were seated the program that followed treated them to the creation of something called “dirty grog”. ROTC cadets dumped a strange mixture of food and drink into a big bucket as a way to highlight the Army’s various branches. Cadet Tia Harris got to drink the result.
"It was gross; it was really gross. The olives were the worst part because they were the last thing and I actually had to chew those. We had alphabet soup; we had molasses, strawberry syrup, chocolate coins, Spam. We just had a lot of gross stuff in there."
Both cadets and veterans laughed and cheered as Harris downed the grog, including former Army officer Herb Kenz.
"World War Two came along and I enlisted right out of high school when I was 17. I was in the occupation forces. I then find out after two years in Japan coming home that I was called a veteran."
All of the armed services were represented at the Veteran’s Lunch. Max Doolittle, a sports announcer at WKZO radio in Kalamazoo for many years, was a Marine in the Pacific during the Second World War.
"We're hoping that the young people now will say, 'Okay, we're not going to have this happen again; we're going to support our military and we're going to do the things we need to keep this country as great as it is.' And I think that's the encouraging part. We come here and we get fired up! I mean, I almost signed over for twenty years. And I think that's what it's about."
Sitting across the table from Doolittle, freshmen ROTC cadets Riley Williamson and Skyler Freeman were clearly impressed by Doolittle’s stories.
Williamson: "Honestly, it's really humbling and it's an experience to talk to veterans and see what they've been through and just learn their life stories."
Freeman: "It's just awesome to sit and talk with them, not even about what they did but just making them feel welcome here and just having a great time with them."
Western’s ROTC commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Decker Hains, says getting future officers like Williamson and Freeman together with vets like Doolittle is one reason why the university’s Military Science and Leadership Department holds the Veteran’s Day luncheon.
"Sir, I think they really get an appreciation of what it's like to serve. They get to hear the old stories and just get a feeling for the profession that they're aspiring to be in. We've got to pass that information along; we've got to share those stories. It's just a good warm feeling of sharing those stories. The past transforms into the future."
No one knows what that future holds for Western ROTC students after they get their commissions as Army officers. But young and old alike became very quiet as cadet Kyle Walters explained the significance of the small table placed in front of the podium.
“The table symbolizes the fact that members of our armed forces are missing from our ranks. This table, set for one, is small, symbolizing the frailty of one prisoner alone against his oppressors. The tablecloth is white, symbolizing the purity of intentions to respond to our country's call to arms. The black napkin stands for the emptiness these warriors have left in the hearts of their families and friends.”
That emptiness weighed on Congressman Fred Upton as he described flying out of Baghdad with other lawmakers in 2003 the day after a big battle.
"We took six caskets with us. Tough, man it was tough. So, this is the weekend, but it really ought to be every day that we think about all of you, your sacrifice, your family's sacrifice, to really make this country the place we want it to be."