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It’s strange how all these years I still take pride in my military service.

Vietnam was a stupid war, waged by a stupid and corrupt President, backed by a brain trust of arrogant “intellectuals” who squandered the lives of young American patriots with little regard for the human cost.

It doesn’t matter. I didn’t do it for the politicians or the bureaucrats. I did it for my country and for myself.

War is the most manly of pursuits. It is baked into our genes. Defend and protect the homeland. It has been the story of the world since we climbed down from the trees, lost the tail, and started wearing clothes and making weapons.

I don’t need to go to a Memorial Day observance, with a stage full of politicians all wanting to make a speech and pay lip service to the sacrifices made by young men who died in service to their country.

Most regular Americans will take the occasion to fire up the barbeque, toss on some burgers or hot dogs, and enjoy the company of friends and neighbors. And that’s OK – in fact, that’s just fine. That’s exactly what those young men from years ago fought and died to protect.

I served in Vietnam, and I witnessed some of those young men take their last breaths. That was early in the war and we moved around the country, wherever there was a need to combat the enemy – D-Zone, the Iron Triangle, the Plain of Reeds, the Central Highlands.

My brother, Charles Kenneth Cunningham, was stationed in support of a Special Forces unit in the Mekong Delta region. The Americans were not officially allowed to torture prisoners, so that task was outsourced to the Vietnamese, but my brother, who was eighteen at the time could hear their screams in the night.

So he stole pain pills from the medical supplies and would smuggle them to prisoners. It was a stupid thing to do. Giving prisoners pills for the pain did little to improve their long-term prospects, and he could have been court martialed and punished if he had been caught.

Five years later, he was killed in a construction accident. My mother was presented an American flag all neatly folded at his funeral. I still have the flag. I am not sentimental, but for some reason I cannot give it up.

Military service used to be a common experience shared by most American men, whether they picked up a rifle, flew an airplane, or peeled potatoes in the mess hall.

It’s different now. I went to the funeral of my wife’s uncle at Arlington Cemetery in Riverside a few weeks back and the mourners were directed during the salute to the flag to place their hands over their hearts. Veterans were directed to salute.

There was a time when almost every man in attendance would have saluted. That was then. I only saw two mourners who saluted – an active duty Marine, the husband of my niece, and myself. There may have been others that I didn’t see, but most stood silently, with their right hand over their hearts.

That certainly doesn’t make them bad people. Many are people I love and respect. It’s just different than it used to be.

Service to one’s country changes the way one thinks about what it means to be an American. Sadly, as each day goes by, it seems to mean less and less.

So when you join your friends and family to celebrate the holiday, you are doing exactly that for which those warriors fought and died.

Enjoy your holiday, but if you think about it, take just a moment to say a little thank-you prayer or at least send out a kind thought for those young men and women who would be doing exactly what you are doing if they could.

– George Lee Cunningham

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