Honor the fallen by telling their stories

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The weekend before last, I had the chance to go to Park Place at Newtown School in Johns Creek to hear retired Maj. Gen. James E. Livingston speak and sign copies of his book “Noble Warrior,” which chronicles the Battle of Dai Do in Vietnam and how he won the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Before Livingston spoke, City Manager John Kachmar — who also served at Dai Do, but in a different company — announced that the city had begun an oral history project to interview veterans about their time in the military, both in wartime and in peace. Livingston had already recorded the first chapter of the project.

Livingston spoke about the service veterans provided the United States in wartime and the service they provide afterward in their capacity as firefighters, policemen and other community leaders. He told the veterans assembled that recording their stories for future generations was their next mission order.

That message is especially important this Memorial Day. Over 400,000 Americans died in World War II, while 36,516 died in the Korean War and 58,209 died in Vietnam. Relatively few Americans died in the smaller conflicts between those two wars and the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, but 1,803 have died in Afghanistan thus far and 4,477 in Iraq.

And those earlier generations of veterans are dying off. As of September 2009, only 2,272,000 of the 16 million who served in WWII remained alive, and those were dying at a rate of 850 per day. The later generation that fought in Vietnam is aging as well, with 390 dying each day. Nearly 40 percent of veterans were 65 or older. In the years since that data was collected, those numbers have only shrunk.

That is why participation in this project is so important. The voices of over half a million men and women are lost, and death silences more every day. It is imperative that those voices that remain speak before they too vanish.

Veterans have lived the history most of us have only read in books or seen (often represented less than accurately) in movies, history that can teach valuable lessons. The devastation of Pearl Harbor after the oncoming Japanese were mistaken for expected B-17 bombers shows what happens when one assumes too much, while the destruction of much of the Far East Air Force even though the Philippines had hours’ warning shows the consequences of disorganization.

And those who have seen combat know firsthand how terrible war is. That is a lesson those who so flippantly assume all international problems can be solved with smart bombs should heed. U.S. President William McKinley, though he ultimately bowed to popular pressure stirred up by the yellow press and asked Congress to declare war on Spain in 1898, told younger men pushing for war he had seen too much blood shed at Antietam Creek to clamor for more, while Gen. William T. Sherman said war is hell and that its “glory” is “moonshine.”

And as someone who possesses a degree in history as well as journalism, I recognize the importance of primary sources. The stories a veteran can tell are firsthand accounts of a time that may be long gone, and those are exceedingly valuable to historians who also work to preserve the memory of the past.

I have not served in the military, let alone as an officer, so I cannot go about handing out mission orders. However, I can exhort others, and I exhort those who have served our nation to record their stories for posterity, so that they and their fallen comrades will never be forgotten. Those interested in doing so can contact Parks Manager Robby Newton at 678-512-3239.

Matthew W. Quinn is the editor of The Johns Creek Herald. Those interested in finding out more about him can follow him on Twitter, www.twitter.com/JCHerald or www.twitter.com/MatthewWQuinn.