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We can’t repay the debt we owe on Memorial Day

A member of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment,

A member of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, The Old Guard, places a flag at a grave site during the "Flags-In" ceremony May 26, 2016 at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va. Credit: Getty Images / Mark Wilson

Few in my immediate generation went to war.

The U.S. involvement in Vietnam ended when I was 12. The next major U.S. conflict, Operation Desert Storm, didn’t occur until I was approaching 30.

I could have enlisted in the intervening years. But I didn’t.

That’s always bothered me, especially around Veterans Day and Memorial Day. On those occasions I hold my manhood cheap, as Shakespeare put it. I know others of my generation who feel the same way.

Most of our fathers or grandfathers were veterans of the World Wars. I can close my eyes still and tick off the dads from the town I grew up in who served, street by street, house by house — Navy medic, Pacific; Merchant Marines, North Atlantic; Army Air Corps, Europe; Air Force, stateside.

They’re almost all gone now.

My father, who turned 93 in last month, was in the Second World War. He was a lieutenant in the 10th Mountain Division and still has German shrapnel scars. His father fought in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War.

The boys I grew up with viewed war as a natural course of events. It was a generational rite of passage we thought. We talked about “our war” constantly and with absolute certitude that it was coming, be it a continuation of Vietnam or something new. It’s what we whispered about late into nights as 8- or 9-year-olds at neighborhood sleepovers. Privately, each of us wondered if he could hack it like his father or uncles did. We drifted off dreaming of becoming war heroes.

It’s embarrassing now to think how childish and naive we were — and how lucky. Our war mercifully never came. We never had to see, hear and smell the horrors of a combat zone. We never had to fight its memories, as so many men and women who came before and after us have had to do.

We never had to kill anyone. We never had to see children blown apart by land mines.

I didn’t fully appreciated growing up just how much the World War I and II generations set the tone for American life. They knew what mankind is capable of at its absolute worst, on the grandest of scales, and they embraced civilian life as an unqualified blessing. As a reprieve.

I like to believe that some of that wore off on their children, and I truly think it did. Appreciation for what we have as Americans was ingrained in me and my five siblings from day one, to the extent it could be. The children of veterans of the Korean and Vietnam wars would probably say the same.

Historians increasingly package the years between 1914 and 2001 as a single era. World War I sparked a course of events that continued all the way to 9/11, they say. On that tragic day a new era began.

That seems about right to me in one sense especially: I no longer feel any of the assuredness our forefathers brought home from Europe and Asia. Their hard-earned perspective is nowhere to be found now. It’s as if the grown ups are all gone, and we don’t know what to do in their absence.

As someone who didn’t have to serve in combat — who didn’t lose any close relatives to war — I’ve never known exactly what to do on Memorial Day, other than monitor my father’s face for latent sadness; to see whether he was ticking off in his mind the names of friends he left behind in Italian soil.

If he was, he never showed it. But his was a generation of stoicism. And of gratitude before all.

On Veterans Day we say, ‘thank you’ to those who have put on the American uniform. On Memorial Day, no words feel sufficient. The best we lucky ones can do is say how truly sorry we are for what so many other American families have gone through.

We owe you. And always will.

William F. B. O’Reilly is a consultant to Republicans.