Giving thanks for veterans

RAF MILDENHALL, England -- Two significant holidays occur during the month of November every year - Veterans Day and Thanksgiving. In the United Kingdom, Veterans Day is called Remembrance Day, but the sentiment is the same. Remembrance Day, or Veterans Day, is a day to think about veterans who made the ultimate sacrifice in past wars, and sadly -- but heroically -- those who are still making the ultimate sacrifice in today's wars.

Thanksgiving is the one day each year we watch football and eat loads of turkey, stuffing, green bean casserole and pumpkin pie. More importantly, however, it is a day for us to consider those things we are truly most thankful for -- our families, friends, freedom and hopefully, the servicemembers who protect our freedom.

While I've lived for nearly 40 years with Veterans Day and Thanksgiving only weeks apart from one another, it wasn't until this November that I truly realized how intertwined those two holidays could be.

On Nov. 8, I was flying from London to Offutt for a conference starting Nov. 9. The Sunday before Nov. 11 -- or Nov. 11 if it is a Sunday -- is celebrated as Remembrance Sunday in the U.K. Throughout the U.K., services were conducted at churches, cemeteries and on military installations to remember the veterans from "the Great War" to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Okay, so big deal; people recognize veterans at a few services each year -- so what? As the late, great Paul Harvey would say, "And now, the rest of the story."

My flight didn't leave London until noon, so I arrived at the airport a little before 10 a.m. Just before 11 a.m., an airport employee announced there would be a two-minute moment of silence at 11 a.m. to remember -- and give thanks for -- veterans who gave their lives in time of war. At 11 a.m., another announcement came that said the two minutes of silence starts now. For a solid two minutes, the busiest airport in the world stopped.

People walked out of their shops in the terminal and stood at the entrance silently, planes didn't taxi, gate announcements ceased, coffee shops stopped making cappuccinos and everyone in the terminal waiting area sat silently.

Those two minutes were one of the most surreal periods of my life, because I was able to witness people who were truly thankful and appreciative of the sacrifices military members had given for their freedom. At least for those two minutes at London's Heathrow Airport, the chaos of the world ceased to exist. That experience alone would have made my week, but the week only got better.

Nov. 11 is the day the United States celebrates Veterans Day. This day commemorates the signing of the armistice to end World War I on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918.

That morning was a day off from the conference, so I woke up early and got in my rental car to see where I would go for breakfast. As I turned on the radio, a disc jockey told his listening audience he was broadcasting from a supermarket where he was providing a free breakfast buffet to all veterans and current active-duty servicemembers. There were literally hundreds of veterans and active-duty members lined up all the way outside the doors of the store. Like the moment of silence in the Heathrow Airport, it was a surreal experience.

While the Heathrow and supermarket moments are recent examples of people thanking veterans, another example goes all the way back to 1863.
On Nov. 18, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln delivered the famous Gettysburg Address. An excerpt from that speech follows, "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work, which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government: of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

President Lincoln recognized the men that died on the field of Gettysburg and challenged Americans to not forget what they did there. He also challenged all Americans to remember them for their sacrifice.

Thanksgiving is only a few days away. After reflecting on the words of President Lincoln at Gettysburg, feeling the warmth of a free hot meal in Nebraska and witnessing the incredible reverence in two minutes of silence at London's Heathrow Airport, I know I will be thankful for military veterans -- past and present.

Every military member, civil servant or contractor working in the Department of Defense today is part of two of the longest military conflicts in United States history. As of today, we have been fighting in Afghanistan for more than eight years and Iraq for more than six years. We are veterans and should be proud of that.

Additionally, I will give thanks on Thanksgiving Day for the thousands of strangers in an airport, the dozens of workers at a supermarket and the hundreds of civilians listening to a speech in Pennsylvania many years ago, who demonstrated their appreciation for those who answered our nation's call to military service. And for the next 40 plus years of my life, I'll have a new appreciation for why Veterans Day and Thanksgiving Day are so close to one another on the calendar.