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Medals and Memorials Are Missing in Action

Veterans: They served, though not in battle. But sometimes it's hard to sit by silently as others are recognized.

May 29, 2000|GAINES POST Jr. | Gaines Post Jr., is a professor emeritus of history at Claremont McKenna College and author of "Memoirs of a Cold War Son" (University of Iowa Press, 2000)

Since its inception as Decoration Day a few years after the Civil War, Memorial Day has honored members of America's armed services who died in war. And on Veterans Day every November, we remember all of our living and dead who served in wartime. But how should we remember the millions of men and women who served in the military during the Cold War without ever seeing combat?

There are no medals or ribbons for having served in the Cold War, unless you happen to have been part of a special operation such as Lebanon (1958) or Berlin (1961). In the Berlin crisis, you could have received the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal if you were stationed in the city of West Berlin or were sent to reinforce the American garrison there. But you got nothing if your unit--like mine--was put on stand-by alert in West Germany in case the East Germans and Soviets fired upon American reinforcements as they passed along the East German autobahn on the way to Berlin.

And it isn't just that we haven't been decorated. If you are what the Department of Veterans Affairs calls a "post-Korean veteran," having served between 1955 and 1964, you would not have been entitled to GI Bill benefits until 1966. That's when legislation, which came in response to the war in Vietnam, gave everyone who had served in the military after 1955 retroactive coverage--but in all likelihood too late to help most of us through college or graduate school.

The truth is, many Cold War veterans do not even consider themselves veterans; relatively few have joined veterans' organizations, for example. We don't march in parades. We don't attend reunions of our units. Our kids don't ask us to tell war stories.

So silence has greeted my generation as well as defined it. Shouldn't someone in authority break this silence and say, "Thanks. Job well done"?

A few years ago I thought so, and I began to write a memoir partly to call attention to the distinctive form of loyalty given by our generation, hidden as we are between the "greatest" generation (as Tom Brokaw calls it), which defeated Hitler, and the baby boomers who fought in Vietnam.

Now I am changing my mind. I don't begrudge the honors given to other generations who fought in battle. And, like Cordelia in Shakespeare's "King Lear," I and others who served in my time feel uneasy making claims about duty and sacrifice that may not be obvious to anyone else. We who are among what historians and others have dubbed the "silent generation"--born in the 1930s and early 1940s--grew up in an atmosphere of war, with childhood nightmares about Hitler, adolescent fears of Josef Stalin and Joseph McCarthy, and ideals of patriotism and memories of military service that were battered by the Vietnam War and domestic violence of the 1960s. That's a powerful lot to grow up on, even though most of us who served in the military were never actually shot at.

Still, I will probably not apply for the Cold War Recognition Certificate that the Department of Defense recently began offering to veterans like me; recognition should be gratefully given without our having to request it long after the fact. Neither will I lobby for a plaque in Washington or join a veterans' group.

Certainly, I hope more of my contemporaries tell their stories, for our generation has a far more interesting and vital history than our silent label implies. Beyond handing these down, however, I think we should remain true to ourselves. In the long run, history will remember us for the strength of our silence in an otherwise noisy era.

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