AMAC Exclusive – By Eleanor Vaughn
Of the 65 Medal of Honor recipients alive today, just one – Hershel Woodrow “Woody” Williams – served in World War II. In February of 1945, Williams found himself alongside thousands of other Marines facing down a hail of enemy fire on the island of Iwo Jima. With almost no cover, Williams, armed with a flamethrower, dashed through open ground to clear enemy positions. Time and again he returned to his own lines to resupply, eventually clearing the way for tanks and other Marines to storm through and secure the island. As the official citation says, his “extraordinary heroism in the face of ruthless enemy resistance” was “directly instrumental” to his company’s ability to complete their objective.
Williams is 98 years old and still serving his community through the Woody Williams Foundation, a non-profit charity that establishes Gold Star Memorial Monuments in honor of service men and women who died defending their country. The foundation provides scholarships and financial assistance for Gold Star families, as well as educates the public about the sacrifices that these families and their loved ones have made for their country.
Williams’ passion for serving military families began even before his Iwo Jima heroics, in the early days of World War II when he delivered telegrams as a civilian—including many with the dreaded news that husbands and sons had died in battle. He remembered the experience years later, when he began to advocate for Gold Star memorials as a way to show these families and the community as a whole that their sacrifices were not forgotten.
Veterans like Williams from the World War II era are getting older, and soon it will be up to younger generations to support and honor their legacy of service. One person who is dedicated to doing just that is Connor Martin, a Marine Corps veteran and current advocate for military servicemembers and their families, who spoke with AMAC Newsline about the issues facing veterans today.
One issue Martin highlighted was the growing disconnect between the military and the rest of the country. Since 1973, the percentage of the population that is serving or has served in the military has dropped dramatically. In 1980, 16% of all U.S. adults had military experience. Today, that figure is just 7%. As a result, many Americans don’t have anyone in their family or even known anyone who has served. Moreover, many of those who do serve come from military families, meaning that the veteran community is often even more insular. Familiarity generates understanding, and without that familiarity, the concern is that the country is in danger of growing estranged from our veterans and their needs.
Martin also explained how military training changes an individual. It teaches people a certain way to think, speak, and respond. While those skills make veterans incredibly valuable members of society, there tends to be some separation between veterans and someone who didn’t serve and doesn’t know anyone who has – a divide that is difficult to bridge at times.
Veterans themselves often remain connected to their military roots. Martin makes clear that, “Once a Marine, always a Marine,” rings true with his experience of the service. Many veterans are engaged with their branches after their retirement. And there are veterans, like Woody Williams, who dedicate their lives to service, using their platform to advocate for their fellow veterans and their families.
But many problems still remain for the veteran community. Both political parties have struggled over the years to completely address inefficiencies and issues within the VA health system, although President Trump made great strides on this front. Projects have been managed poorly, going over budget and falling behind schedule. And while everybody agrees something should be done, progress has been frustratingly slow.
As Martin explains, the growing disconnect between veterans and the rest of the country is just one part of many larger issues within our culture. In the past, it was simply understood that the elderly deserved respect, and that they possessed certain wisdom which younger generations could benefit from. In schools, students learned about the courage of the men and women who fought and died for their country, while communities held up veterans as heroes.
In our fast-paced world today, these simple acts of reverence have largely fallen by the wayside. Instead of learning to honor the past, many young people are taught to attack and discard it, and to erase anyone who is deemed to have not met modern ethical standards. While many politicians pay lip service to the accomplishments of veterans, they are unwilling to do the real work of caring for their needs.
Our veterans are among our country’s greatest treasures and should be treated as such. Many who served, like Woody Williams and Connor Martin, have continued to fight for their fellow men and women in uniform after their own military service ended. Their example inspires all of us to do our part to care for our veterans and honor their legacy.
Eleanor Vaughn is a writer living in Virginia.
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