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SIMMONS: Saluting America’s veterans

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There are, oh, so many stories to tell this Veterans Day weekend.

Some are about soldiers like 90-year-old Floyd Howard Siler Sr., who landed in Normandy, France, on D-Day, eventually came to the nation's capital to raise his family and is among the many veterans of the aging "Greatest Generation," and other stories are about individual men and women like 26-year-old Cpl. Elmer Kidd, who was killed in the Korean War.

Whatever the story, told or untold, this is the weekend designated to honor them and say two simple words: "Thank you."

Unlike Memorial Day, the federal holiday in May during which we generally focus on lives lost, Veterans Day has been our annual observance for living military servicemen and women since Nov. 11, 1919.

Originally called Armistice Day in recognition of the anniversary of the end of Word War I, Veterans Day urges us to salute all living service members, the very people who share your house of worship, live down the block, work at the local grocer or beauty shop, teach our children, who did exactly what was asked of them — serve their country.

The story of Mr. Siler started in a little more than 90 years ago. Born in the central North Carolina town of the same name, Mr. Siler began his military service in 1942, the year after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and by 1944 had become a member of the highly skilled barrage balloon crew. His all-black unit in the segregated Army first saw combat when it was assigned to Utah and Omaha beaches.

Military service isn't a favorite topic of Mr. Siler, his daughter, Brenda Brenda, told me the other day.

So in honor of his 90th birthday, she pulled togethed a brief bio of sorts (and some information that's part of a forthcoming book on blacks and the military.)

His job and that of his fellow crewmen was to provide protective shield for key installations to prevent low-level air attacks by tethering and deploying balloons so that enemy planes risked striking their aircraft on the wires and cables tied to the balloons.

"The 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion was unique at Normandy for two reasons," Ms. Siler, who grew up in the District, wrote. "First, it was the first barrage balloon unit in France and second, it was the first black unit in the segregated American Army to come ashore on D-Day.

Highly skilled, the men of this unit manned in crews of three instead of the usual four.

"When they were told they were going to land in France to protect the invasion beaches, the soldiers quickly realized that the standard [very-low altitude] balloon was too heavy and cumbersome to lug ashore from a landing craft," she wrote. "The soldiers redesigned the apparatus to be more lightweight with handles [to] be brought ashore by one man."

Mr. Siler might not brag about it, but the pride of his daughter is hardly masked when she points out that his anti-aircraft heroics earned him several medals, including two Bronze Stars, and that he served in the European and Pacific theaters, "a rare thing."

Neither her dad nor the other men and women who served and are serving need say a word about patriotic sacrifices.

We should be handing out thank-you notes.

Freedom isn't free

The Veterans Day Eve lineups of tourist vehicles, limos and school buses packed with youngsters along the national Mall prove we have not forgotten that freedom is not free.

While monuments and memorials paying homage to such historical figures named Washington, Lincoln, FDR and King are hugely popular, constantly drawing tourists and Hollywood filmmakers for obvious reasons, the Mall's war memorials are visited upon, too.

It is those memorials — those war memorials — that stand as constant reminders of the lives both lost and still among us.

On Friday night, scores of teens under the watchful eyes of chaperones meandered among the various memorials, taking note of America's testimonials to people who fought in the "Forgotten War" in Korea, and in Vietnam, in both World Wars, as well as at special reminder that gals in uniforms risked their lives to help nurse men and women as best they could during wartimes with the Vietnam Women's Memorial.

The cost of freedom

For far too many, the cost of freedom is life itself.

That is the story of a young Elmer Kidd, who left his family in upstate New York, deployed in the Korean War and died at age 26.

Told his body was found 62 years ago after the battle of the Chosin Reservoir, his family suffered for decades under the weight of the North Korean regime, which refused to release Kidd's remains and those of more than 200 others until 1993.

It took another two decades for DNA tests to reveal that the remains in one of the 208 boxes returned to the United States were those of Cpl. Kidd.

Family and friends said their hellos on Tuesday when his remains arrived in Syracuse and then their goodbyes on Friday, when Kidd was buried with full military honors.

Thank the corporal for paying the ultimate price.

Shock and awe

Every State, USA, is home to living and wounded warriors, and here again you don't have to search them out.

What we need to do is make sure we don't turn our backs on them.

In other words (and pardon the preaching), you can hate the wars and support the warriors.

Offer than to each and every one.

• Deborah Simmons can be reached at dsimmons@washingtontimes.com.

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