Editorial: Let’s listen to them while we can

The Patriot Ledger

George Thompson Jr. is probably like a lot of World War II veterans.

The retired Milton plumber got up every morning to do his job, raise his family and contribute to his community by being politically active as an elected town meeting member.

But he rarely spoke about his service in Europe, so his family had no idea what a hero he was. Until now.

The 82-year-old Thompson and members of his family traveled to Washington this week so the former Army infantryman and six other veterans could receive the prestigious French Legion of Honor from President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Thompson is literally part of a dying breed while at the same time a member of one of the most robust groups in the country – veterans.

Like many of his generation – dubbed the Greatest Generation Thompson served because it was the right thing to do. And like many of the nearly 16 million WWII servicemen and women who came home safely, they felt only that they were doing their job.

Never mind that Thompson received a Purple Heart for wounds and a Bronze Star for bravery. When he and other members in the Army’s 90th Infantry Division performed a dangerous – and successful – nighttime mission to save soldiers and help with the liberation of France, they did it because that was their orders.

But France, despite the constant berating the country receives from a hawkish segment of our population, has never forgotten their service and honors men like Thompson whom they recognize are the reason their country is free.

It is a lesson we could learn well.

There are an estimated 23 million veterans in our country, ranging from a handful of World War I vets to newly separated members of the military who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There are now less than 3 million WWII veterans, roughly the same number as Korean War veterans and less than half of Vietnam veterans.

They all have stories to tell. Some, like Thompson, never thought of themselves as big deals. Others, like those who served in Vietnam, are traumatized by their service and, in part, by their treatment upon their return.

Whatever we think of war, we cannot forget the warriors. Perhaps the best way to honor them is simply to listen to their stories.