Writing last year about the 100th anniversary of the armistice ending World War I, one of the most cataclysmic events in history, I noted that memories of that conflict have mostly faded from the public consciousness.

That’s because the generation who fought it has passed. It is left to their children and grandchildren to preserve the accounts of their sacrifices.

Less than 400,000 of the 16 million Americans who fought in World War II are still living, according to the National World War II Museum. Less than 8,500 remain in Missouri.

The ranks of Korea and Vietnam veterans are rapidly dwindling as well. The youngest of those heroes are now in their 60s.

So if you haven’t ever thought to ask your grandfather, grandmother, father, mother, uncle, aunt or other relative about their service, now’s the time. Don’t wait until it’s too late to preserve those memories.

I have had the honor of interviewing many veterans of America’s wars over the years — American, Canadian, British, German, French, Belgian and Dutch.

Many were reluctant to talk about their experiences, even to their families. They grappled their entire lives to deal with memories of fallen comrades and the horrors of war.

Others were proud of their service, but reluctant to cast themselves as heroes. Some served in support roles and didn’t experience front-line combat. They did their duty and contributed what they could to the war effort.

And more recently, let’s not overlook the 2.7 million Americans who have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001, many of them more than once, according to the Watson Institute for International & Public Affairs at Brown University.

“Many Iraq and Afghanistan veterans face a life of disability due to the physical and psychological injuries they sustain in the war zones,” the institute wrote in 2015. “At least 970,000 veterans have some degree of officially recognized disability as a result of the wars. Many more live with physical and emotional scars despite lack of disability status.”

Since the elimination of the draft in 1973, the armed services have been an all-volunteer force. Society has been divided into a small, professional warrior class of those who choose to serve, and everyone else.

To put on a uniform and serve your country is a selfless act that fewer and fewer Americans are willing to perform. Let’s not miss an opportunity to honor those who do.


My own military service, as a captain in the U.S. Army, was unremarkable. I never fired a shot in anger.

I enrolled in college on an Army ROTC scholarship three years after the Vietnam War ended. I went on to serve in the First Infantry Division (Big Red One) in Germany during the Cold War, and later in the National Guard in Oregon and Pennsylvania.

That service, however, opened the doors to many opportunities in my journalism career. I’m proud to count Joe Galloway, the legendary war correspondent, as a colleague and a friend. We worked together on news coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He was the young reporter who, in 1965, took part in the first major battle between the U.S. Army and North Vietnamese regulars in the Ia Drang valley in the central highlands of Vietnam. He was awarded a Bronze Star for carrying a badly wounded man to safety while he was under very heavy enemy fire.

That battle and Joe’s role in it were immortalized in the book “We Were Soldiers Once ... And Young,” and the movie “We Were Soldiers” (Joe was portrayed by actor Barry Pepper).

Joe brought the commander in that battle, retired Lt. Gen. Harold “Hal” Moore Jr., to our office in Washington, D.C. for a meet-and-greet a few years ago (Moore was portrayed by Mel Gibson in the movie).

I asked Gen. Moore about ordering men into battle, many to their deaths, in an unpopular war in a remote place halfway around the world that many Americans wouldn’t be able to locate on a map.

His response was forceful and unequivocal. They followed his orders and gave their lives because it was their duty, he said. There was no question, no hesitation. They were serving their country.

We should never forget their sacrifices.

Jim Van Nostrand is executive editor of the Columbia Daily Tribune and Missouri state editor for GateHouse Media.