As with many men in their 30s, the demands of building a career and family mean my gaze is focused on what's ahead, not what's behind. I do, however, enjoy reading about history — especially military history. But it took a trip to Okinawa, Japan, to make me realize the deep, if not always visible, connection between America's youngest generations and its "Greatest" one.
In April 1945, Okinawa became the site of one of World War II's bloodiest battles between invading U.S. forces and the defending Japanese. My grandfather, Ray Akins— then a 19-year-old Marine from Brady, Texas — was in the thick of it. As I walked around the island I realized I was walking in his footsteps. I stood at the spot where my grandfather stormed the beach with the 1st Marine Division. I imagined the noise and death surrounding the soldiers as they first set foot on the island.
Listen to the vets
Suddenly, a rush of emotion came over me, and I had to know what my grandfather was thinking at that moment. So I called him, from that very spot. I told him where I was, and with tears rolling down my face, I asked him to recall that day.
"I was 19 years old on April 1, 1945, and my birthday was in May. I was just trying to live to be 20," he told me. I will never forget that conversation, and neither will the future generations of my family. Had a Japanese bullet killed my grandfather, I would not be here. Nor would my sons.
When I returned home, my grandfather told me more stories about the war: the surge of patriotism after Pearl Harbor; his boot camp in San Diego; his adventures in China and his encounters in the Pacific. I met more veterans when I joined the board of the National World War II Museum , the New Orleans institution that Congress designated to honor and preserve the stories and deeds of the Greatest Generation for the future. Listening to the veterans' experiences moved me greatly. All Americans should hear them. Especially our kids. But they need to be heard soon.
Thank them, too
These veterans are leaving us. Now in their 80s and 90s, they are dying at the rate of 797 a day, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. I urge families to seek out these veterans. Thank them for their service. Ask them questions. Let your children listen.
They will learn about battles fought in Burmese jungles and on Italian hills. Hear of the heroism displayed on Normandy's beaches and in submarines beneath the Pacific. And it wasn't just the soldiers. Millions of American women streamed into the factories to build planes, tanks and ships so vital to our victory. These women symbolized the "we can do it" spirit of the home front.
For me, the most valuable lesson children will learn from WWII veterans is the value of teamwork and the idea that if we all pull together, we can accomplish great things. The Super Bowl victory last year by my team, the New Orleans Saints, pales in comparison with what ordinary men and women achieved 70 years ago. To them, it didn't seem remarkable. But it was remarkable.
America's freedom was endangered. They fought for it, and they saved it. And our children need to know it. Our vanishing WWII vets can teach them that a nation, united and working together, can secure any victory.
As we celebrate Veterans Day today, visit with a member of the Greatest Generation and invite him or her to share some memories. Sit. And listen. You'll find yourself walking in the footsteps of heroes.