Hard Candy – Veteran’s Day

*Originally published in the Gabber Newspaper on November 8, 2012*

So, my mom’s pretty amazing. I mean, she raised me, which could not have been easy, but beyond that, she impresses me constantly. Now, forget about all the regular mom things all great moms do for their kids – playing with them, kissing skinned knees, not freaking out when their kid does something stupid – she has this amazing capacity for giving. As far back as I can remember, my mom’s done whatever she could to put things right.
Most recently, she’s made it her mission to find all the men who went through basic training with my grandfather in Lincoln, Nebraska. Using an old piece of stationery from the Army Air Force base that they all signed with their names and hometowns, she wanted to track down these men and send them photos of them that my grandfather took. She hasn’t found them all yet, but she’s made it her mission to learn how to research this sort of thing online and get in touch with either the men or their families.
Born in 1909 and drafted in 1942, my grandfather was an older soldier when he served as a crew chief with the Flying Tigers of the 26th Squadron, 14th Air Force. Some of the men who served with him told my mother her dad was a father figure to them, too. Years later, he made me some tapes about his time in the service, and one of things that stuck with me was his pride at only losing one man. That’s how he thought of these youngs boys: his men. He spoke on the tapes with sadness about the one soldier who died.
That’s kind of the image I have in my head of veterans: my grandfather. I think that most of us maybe have that in our heads, of our father or our grandfathers.
Last week, though, I sat down with a veteran who brought the reality of war home to me on a different level. You can read the story about Sergeant Taylor Urruela, who is one of 5,000 Americans who have lost at least one leg or an arm in our current war, in this week’s paper. He looked nothing like the veteran I pictured in my head. With absolutely no disrespect to my grandfather, Sergeant Urruela, or any other enlisted man or woman, this guy is, well… hot. Veterans aren’t supposed to be young and “hot” – in my head, they all look vaguely like my grandfather. I don’t object to thinking of Sergeant Urruela as a wounded warrior or a veteran because he’s good looking, though. I object because I’m old enough to have babysat him.
That’s my point: it’s easy for those of us who grew up “fighting” the Cold War to think of veterans as the kindly older men we see at Flag Day ceremonies or our fathers and grandfathers. Sergeant Urruela, and men and women like him, are just as prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice for the rest of us as those men. And, just like the men my grandfather felt so protective of, they’re kids. Sergeant Urruela was 15 when the Twin Towers fell and 20 when he lost his leg. He’s all of 26 now, trying to find his way as a civilian in a world where idiots like me don’t think of men like him when think of veterans.
The photos of my grandfather as a young man reflect a dapper guy with a pencil-thin moustache, dark eyes, and a killer smile. I can see why my grandmother took one look at him at a USO dance and agreed to spend some time with the guy. Only after spending some time with Sergeant Urruela do I realize what people who lived through the Civil, Spanish-American and World War saw when they looked at my grandfather: a kid. Before meeting Sergeant Urruela, the idea of veterans as young men and women sent to fight war was an abstract concept, a photograph of my younger grandfather. Now, it’s a person.
I’ve joined my mom in her quest to help find some of the remaining men who endured war with my grandfather. As I do so, I’ll see these men through new eyes. I’ll no longer picture them as graying grandfathers who picked me up early from school when I was sick. Instead, I’ll remember that they, like Sergeant Urruela, were almost children when they went to war. Young men, every one, prepared at any moment to make the ultimate sacrifice with a life they’d barely begun to live.
And, this Sunday, when we honor our veterans, for the first time I’ll think of all the kids my college-aged self watched when I worked at the YMCA’s aftercare and wonder how many of them have gone to war. I’d like to think none of them, but then, I’d like to think we never had to send anyone.
To veterans everywhere – those whom I could have babysat and those who could have babysat me –  thank you for your service and your sacrifice.

Contact Cathy Salustri at CathySalustri@theGabber.com.

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I write. I take pictures. I love my dog. I love Florida. My 2016 book, 'Backroads of Paradise' did really well for the publisher and now I feel a ridiculous amount of pressure to finish the second book.