Honor our fallen heroes

By Ellen Mortensen,Editor I have had the distinct honor of getting to bring you, the readers, the stories of many of our area World War II veterans in the past few years. And I have also had the honor of being able to accompany several of those veterans on two WWII Hero Flight trips to Washington, D.C. What I never planned, or could have anticipated, is how deeply these men would touch my life. I have spent hours sitting down with these veterans in their homes, listening as they began to share their stories. For some it was stories they had shared many times before; for others, it was memories they had not even allowed themselves to think about for many years. It is not uncommon for tears to flow during these interviews, from both the veteran and me. And in those moments a bond forms, a totally unexplainable bond. Last week I attended the memorial service of one such man, Arleigh Sintek. He was not the first of our Hero Flight veterans whom we have lost, just the most recent. I had the honor of accompanying Arleigh to Washington, D.C., last June. He expressed his gratitude many times to me for the generous people that made this trip possible for him and the other veterans. Like most of the other guys, Arleigh was adamant he was not a hero. That is the one recurring statement I have heard over and over from these men. They insist that the real heroes are the ones who didn’t come home. This past weekend, our nation lost 30 of those heroes in Afghanistan in a terrible, tragic event. One of those men was from right here in Nebraska, Grand Island to be exact. He was only 30-years-old, the age of my oldest son. As details of this story began to unfold, I couldn’t help but notice the parallels among these stories and those shared with me by the World War II veterans. It made me realize, that though many years have passed and a lot has changed, war is still war. The sacrifice of life is still just as great. Several members of the Hero Flight group who took the June trip with Arleigh attended his funeral last week, donning their Navy blue Hero Flight caps and sitting together as a united band. We were there to pay our final respects to a hero - whether he considered himself one or not. In the coming weeks, the families of 30 young men across the nation will be joined by thousands to pay their final respects to their fallen heroes as well. Those of us who are not there physically will most certainly be there in spirit. In my visits with these veterans from a past era, many have shared with me their thoughts on the war in Afghanistan and Iraq. They have said that they feel empathy for today’s soldiers, because unlike when they fought these soldiers are not always sure who the enemy is. In the last decade we have had to come to terms with the fact that the world is full of people who dislike Americans - to the point of wanting to kill us just because we are Americans. It is a concept that is very hard for me to grasp, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. For most of my life I have thought of us as the good guys, and just assumed everyone else did too. The world is full of naysayers, both abroad and at home. While we have lots of enemies around the world, we also have plenty of individuals on our own soil who do not believe our nation is worth fighting for. But these 30 men believed America was worth fighting for, and so did Arleigh Sintek and the rest of the courageous World War II veterans. Spending time with these men has taught me the true meaning of sacrifice, and humility. When we arrived at Reagan Airport in D.C., the crowd of people in the terminal cheered our veterans as they disembarked the plane. I tried to take pictures of that, but quite honestly could not see through my tears to focus the camera. The men were extremely moved. When we visited the World War II Memorial, several veterans, including Arleigh, had people approach them, shake their hands and tell them thank you for their service. Many of those who thanked the veterans were young people. I had a chance to visit with Arleigh after we got home about the trip, and when I asked him what touched him the most he didn’t even hesitate - it was those thank-yous. We all need to take every opportunity we have to say thank you to the men and women who have fought for our freedom. We can say it verbally, but we can also say it in the every day way we treat and respect our fellow Americans. Despite what many would have you believe right now, ours really is the greatest nation on earth. We owe it to the memories of these 30 Navy SEALS and every soldier who has fought for this country, to do everything we can to preserve the sanctity of our way of life. That is the greatest tribute we can give.