When a veteran speaks, listen

On Thursday night, we had to make a quick trip to Bismarck. Because we were heading that way, I decided that it was time to pay a visit to the North Dakota Veterans Cemetery in Mandan.

That’s where my Grandpa Monke was buried in December, and because circumstances kept me from attending the burial service, I had yet to see the place where he was laid to rest.

While this was my first trip to the Veterans Cemetery, it certainly won’t be my last. Not only is my Grandpa there, my Grandma and parents plan to buried there as well.

The cemetery is located in a beautifully serene setting off Highway 1806 south of Mandan. From my grandpa’s grave, you can see the Missouri River, Fort Abraham Lincoln and acres upon acres of farmland and rolling hills. It’s a good spot and one I’m sure he’d have been happy with.

There are a lot of other World War II veterans buried alongside my Grandpa — about 25 of them don’t even have headstones yet, as the ground above their graves has been recently sodded following the long, cold winter and late spring.

Most of those buried alongside my grandpa were men, most of whom were born in the late 1910s and ‘20s. That meant they were likely either World War II or Korean War veterans.

It shouldn’t take a trip to a cemetery around Memorial Day to realize just few of these men who fought in those two wars are still with us.

Thousands of American World War II veterans die every day.

These veterans are leaving our country a better place than they found it, and that’s something I’m not convinced my generation understands. When they’re gone, so are their stories. These are people who persevered through the Great Depression and the most storied war in modern history and emerged from that to build our nation into the power it is today. My generation’s biggest trial is that they may have to work a bad job for low pay after spending too much money on college. That, or they’ll have a hard time affording the latest cellphone or TV. A very small percentage of us — myself not included, obviously — have served in the Armed Forces.

That’s why the stories of the Greatest Generation matter. They provide the last perspective we have of a simpler and more challenging time in American history.

When they’re no longer around to tell us history from fiction, the lines between the two get blurred. In ways, they already have. For as much as I love watching movies or TV shows about World War II — “Saving Private Ryan” and “Band of Brothers” are classics — a lot of them are fictionalized to heighten the drama, as if it really needed to be.

I’ve always received a greater impact listening to the real stories of the men who served our country during a much different time than anyone in my generation will ever understand. My Grandpa was never some tremendous war hero. Though he was in some major battles and campaigns, including the Battle of the Bulge, no one is making movies about what he and his fellow soldiers did during their time in Europe.

Nonetheless, it’s men like him who deserve to have their stories heard before they’re gone.

Though we don’t like to face it, the fact is we’re fast approaching a day when we’ll no longer have World War II or Korean War veterans. It’ll happen within the lifetime of the majority of those reading this column. Some of us will likely see the day when there are no longer any Vietnam veterans remaining.

Memorial Day was established to remember those who died during the Civil War. It was later extended to honor all servicemembers who died while serving in the Armed Forces.

Today and Monday, take the time to listen to a veteran of any age. Listen to him or her tell the stories of the time they spent defending their country, or the stories of their fellow men and women who never had the chance to tell you their stories.

You will thank yourself for it after they’re gone.

Author: Dustin Monke

Former newspaper editor. Now I market the best baked goods and donuts in America. But every once in a while, I write a cool story too.

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