Where I come from, Veteran’s Day is a pretty big deal. American flags line the streets and the library square, storefronts display messages of gratitude, and service members are honored with an incredibly heartfelt assembly in the Tipton Middle School gym. Months of hard work and planning go into this event, which stands among the community’s most important of the year, and not a person in attendance comes away untouched. It’s amazing to see the reverence on the children’s faces- the quiet curiosity and admiration of seven hundred little souls when true-life local heroes take their seats of honor on the floor of the school gym. And to a person, each of the veterans carries themselves with a certain dignity only possible amongst those who have served. Whether it was in wartime or peace, they have known adversity. They have known sacrifice. They have given of themselves for the belief of this country, and for that have proven worthy of our gracious respect. Some have seen things they cannot forget. Few have received the appreciation they deserve. But there is no machismo or air of superiority or entitlement, just a quiet humility and a humble look in their eyes; one that seems to say “it was my honor…” -even through the scars. It is a day without politics, differences or personal grievance. It’s a day we instead come together only as Americans, and say thank you for the sacrifices they've made.
It’s not the only day, however, when we can see tribute to our military personnel. Some don’t realize this, but it’s possible to find a testament to their service every day of the year… Not long ago I was back in town taking photos for a new community guide that is set to be released soon. One of the attractions that the City wished to have included is the Cedar County Freedom Rock, which sits prominently before the Courthouse downtown. For readers not familiar, the Freedom Rock Project is an initiative of Iowa artist Ray “Bubba” Sorensen II to paint patriotic murals on boulders, with the goal of completing one in each of the 99 counties across the state. When ours was commissioned in 2018, residents were given the opportunity to sponsor pavers engraved with the name of a family member to be set in a concourse around the stone. The idea was to honor loved ones who had served, and my grandfather, Donald Meier, is among those memorialized there. After getting the shots I needed of the Freedom Rock, I took some time to search out his name.
My Grandpa served in the Navy during World War II. History books tend to glorify the valor of that greatest generation, recounting the eagerness of young men of the era to join the war effort. That may have been the case for some, but not for him. His enlistment came as a result of an underage beer run after he and some friends were caught in Davenport with alcohol. The hoodlums were given a choice between facing charges or joining the service, so Grandpa reluctantly headed back home to the farm to tell his parents that he was dropping out of school to join the military. (My Great Grandpa said he was a “damn fool” for letting the police officer scare him into signing up.) Nonetheless he went and served in the Pacific theater, and was proud to have done so. For as long as I can remember photos of the ships he was on and a portrait of him in uniform were mainstays on my grandparent’s living room wall. An Honor Flight trip to Washington stood as one of the most cherished experiences in his final chapters of life.
My Grandpa didn’t talk about the war all that much. When asked by us grandkids for the sake of school reports he’d recite his ship names, and tell of ports he’d visited- Okinawa, Australia, Japan. It was actually my older cousin who shared the story that resonated with me the most. Grandpa was on a tanker, and at one point in heavy fighting a Japanese kamikaze plane went into a nosedive, seemingly headed straight for his ship. The vessel was full of fuel, and if struck likely would have blown up and killed all fifty men on board. The plane pulled up slightly at the last second though, flew over top Grandpa’s tanker and crashed into a larger American ship nearby. I asked my grandfather about this before he passed away a few years ago. He confirmed the account, adding that he didn’t like to think about it. He said he watched a lot of men die that day. Since my cousin told me the story when we were kids I’ve grappled with the realization that if that kamikaze pilot had held course, myself and generations of my family would not exist.
As I looked for my grandpa’s paver so many other family names jumped out. Harden. Fitch. Belitz. Pelzer. Names that I’d known all my life. Names shared by those I’d gone to school with. Families that had been friends with my parents and grandparents too. Neighbors. Classmates. Teammates. People who had filled the same halls of the high school. People married in the same churches. Many elicited flashbacks and smiles. T-ball. Track meets. Camp outs… Whipping donuts on snowy nights in the vacant Walmart parking lot as we rocked out to Alice in Chains. Just like our parents and aunts and uncles had done together before. (Well, there wasn’t a Walmart and it wasn’t to AIC, but you get the gist.) We all enjoyed the same small town life, fun and mischief that most of the first names on the concourse had, in some form, in their time. These are so much more than just names etched in stone. These are our roots. This is our community. Our heritage. They are us. We honor veterans not only for their heroics fighting for our freedom, but because they’re the same people who made us who we are. They are our grandparents, our parents and our siblings. Our former teachers and superintendents. The quiet neighbor across the street. They also cruised Main Street and rode the same school bus routes. They grew up here, fell in love here. They got into trouble on Saturday nights. And for a time in their life, they answered a call that allowed all of this for the rest of us too.
Each, I’m certain, also carried or carries untold stories similar to my grandfathers. Most don’t talk about it all that much, for reasons that are their own. Veteran's Day is so they don’t have to. It’s for the rest of us to give them that permission, and say "thank you... we understand." In a world too often dictated by who can shout the loudest, it’s genuine gestures that are so meaningful, and we humbly offer this gift. Just as we know there are empty spaces around us. Those who never came home, families that never happened, friends and classmates we will never know. We hold space for them as well. For those who gave the ultimate sacrifice, we are their legacy too.
The flags and assemblies are sincere expressions of our sentiment, and the names on the pavers certainly help us remember. But the true testament is everywhere you look in town. It can be found any day of the year. It’s in the faces and the lives that we lead, made possible by those who have served. That’s how we honor them. And in a place like Tipton, Iowa- where so many of those names are so familiar, we value this all the more.