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Jerry Coleman and a Challenge to Veterans

Jerry Coleman and a Challenge to Veterans

Today I was humbled to attend the public memorial for Jerry Coleman at Petco Park. There will be plenty of press about Jerry’s service in the United States Marines, in baseball and as a broadcaster, and there is nothing more I can add to what has been and will be said many times. The irony is that, while all of it is true, there was a quiet aspect of Jerry Coleman that embodies character traits many believe are missing in America these days.

Lt Col Coleman served as a pilot in two wars: World War II and Korea. As befitting many in “The Greatest Generation” he was not given to talking much about his military service. Folks from that era were above braggadocious self-aggrandizement, and frequently point to their brothers and sisters as the reason for whatever military or civilian success may have come their way. This was true of Jerry to a fault, as many of today’s speakers confirmed, and it is honorable. That kind of character served them well, and gave their kids excellent role models to emulate.

The sad truth is that many of us in the Baby Boomer generation didn’t emulate our parents sooner.

Something about what made Jerry Coleman tick got lost during the Vietnam era. We thought, perhaps, that we knew better — that the stiff upper lip of proud and humble service didn’t serve us. But, when some in America spit on the returning Vietnam Veterans, folks like Jerry kept going, continuing to lead by example with the same character that kept them at war until the job was done, honoring the memories of brother and sister heroes who did not come home through their own exemplary lives. Vets like Jerry Coleman spoke little about their military service, choosing instead to show us how being willing to give their lives for America could play out as husbands, fathers and grandfathers. If you are fortunate to have come from such a family, you have received a rare gift.

We are now almost 70 years away from the end of World War II, but the spirit that won that war is not forgotten. There are young Veterans living near many of us today who have the sparks of that spirit in them. Maybe they are noted public servants or businesspeople, or maybe they are homeless, but they share an oath of willingness to sacrifice their lives for…what?

This is today’s challenge to Veterans of all eras: make your sacrifice come alive for the rest of us.

Most people are aware of the invisible wounds of war that afflict so many of our young Veterans today. If you are a young Veteran, take those wounds deeply into your psyche and let them inform the passion with which you tell your story, then tell your story. Tell it to those who love you. Tell it with sensitivity to your loved ones’ ability to digest the tough stuff. Let your friends and family see the angst that goes with being a combatant today — show us the tragedy of having to make instant moral decisions that may or may not be the right ones; show us the pain that goes with having to make those decisions. Show us how to make better choices in civilian life as a result of the ones you had to make in the Service. Show us how to lead, how to mentor, how being a brother or sister on the battlefield can strengthen the ties to friends and family here at home. Sure: you may not get it right the first time, but the people around you here at home need your experience — however horrific — and your openness. We live in an era where the most difficult choices are happening, not in the boardroom or the courthouse or the halls of government, but in the families and communities of military combatants, and we need leadership.

Most people have an understanding of the history of Vietnam, but not many of us know what it has been like to live as a Vietnam Veteran since then. If you are a Vietnam Veteran, you may have now retired both from the military and from a civilian career or two. You know what it has been like to live with your past. Tell us. Tell us about the choices that led you to Vietnam. Tell us about what it was like to fight there. Tell us how that changed you — or didn’t. Tell us what it has been like since you came home. Tell us how you began to work for peace, or worked for a defense contractor, and why. Tell us about your commitment to your buddies; about the ones that didn’t come home; about how you were treated by others — some of them friends or family — who became conscientious objectors. Give us some insight into how difficult it has been, into what has made it more bearable. If you became successful in civilian life, tell us about what made that possible and how it happened. Help us understand the adversity and teach us how we might possibly do it better if we were ever given the opportunity. Maybe your grandsons and granddaughters need to hear this; maybe total strangers will hear it — tell it far and tell it loud and help us understand how you came to be who you are today.

This is hard to do. It’s not typically what those in military service do. But if only a few accept the challenge — if only a few find the courageous humility to do so — think of the potential for changing the future. Next time you find your kids or grandkids playing war games online, take them aside and tell them what it is really like in battle. Talk to them about what a Purple Heart really means. Give them some real life combat infantry tactics. Most importantly, help them understand what it really means to make the ultimate sacrifice, or to hold a buddy in your arms while he or she makes it. These are beautiful character-building opportunities our world can’t afford to miss. Veterans: we need you.*

Jerry, thank you for your noble lifetime of service. Thank you for the inspiration of your service, from aviator to baseball player to broadcaster. Thank you for giving your voice to the Padres for more than 40 years. I hope your passing inspires us to keep on talking…about what it means to serve in the United States Military, as a civilian, as a father and grandfather, as a brother, colleague, mentor, leader and friend. God bless you, Jerry Coleman.

*A great online collection of Veteran stories has already begun at Make the Connection — please share yours.