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Service Members Keep Promises, Even If Congress Doesn't

Oct 9, 2013
Originally published on October 11, 2013 3:07 pm

So finally today, you might have noticed I've been out of the office a bit lately. I'm taking that trip a lot of us have, or will be taking: having to get more involved in caring for an elderly parent. And because I've been on that road, I have found myself going through old drawers and boxes in a way I had no reason or right to do before now.

And I found some letters — beautiful, fragile, brown with age letters — to and from my father and his brothers. They're all from wartime. There's a letter to my father from his older brother, my uncle George, just as my father enlisted and was accepted into the army air corp.

Uncle George was already in the service, serving in the Calvary and I laughed when he said he would not offer my father big brotherly advice, because he might soon have to throw a salute at his younger brother.

But then he went on and did offer advice as my father was leaving New York for his first trip to the racially segregated south for basic training. Uncle George told him, "It's like anything else. Follow the rules and regulations, and you'll be all right."

And then there was Uncle George's letter consoling him when my dad did not get his wings. And my uncle said - and this is the God's truth - "you should think about logistics. I think there are going to be a lot of jobs in that after this is over." Too bad Dad didn't listen or I might be telling you from my country estate instead of from the studio!

And then there were the letters that really pierced my heart. Between my Dad and his younger brother, my uncle Ron, where, after a few pages of chit chat about pretty girls and Christmas presents, they promised to take care of each other's families if anything happened to either of them.

What gets me about those letters is that neither of them was married, nor had any children at that point. They were both still kids, really. Brave kids, they both enlisted, but essentially kids. This was a promise for the future.

And you know what? They kept that promise. Nothing dramatic, neither wound up having to raise the other's children or take care of the other's widow. But they did step in when needed. Mainly they were there for each other - a promise made, and a promise kept.

Can I just tell you, isn't it a shame that two people just out of their teens could keep a promise that their government now cannot?

Now I'm not going to get into the politics of who is at fault for the current government shutdown, or partial shutdown, or whatever you want to call it: which side is supposedly standing on principle and which one is supposedly just having a tantrum. I bet you probably made up your own mind about it. I suspect that where you stand depends in part on how you vote. If you think government generally does valuable and important work, or you think it's a hydra-headed monster that is eating the economy, well, that's going to influence how you see this whole thing.

But something's gotta be wrong when we find that families of service members killed this past week in combat zones will not immediately get the $100,000 promised to them because the government is not functioning fully.

And something's gotta be wrong when family members won't be able to meet the remains of their loved ones as they arrive back through Dover Air Force Base, unless they can pay for it themselves.

And something's gotta be wrong when the aging widows and veterans can't even apply for benefits due them for service during wars fought long ago, because there's nobody to process the paperwork.

And something's gotta be wrong when survivor benefits already being paid might not last much longer because the Department of Veterans Affairs could run out of cash if the shutdown continues.

Now they're not the only citizens suffering right now, of course. But we don't ask most people to die for us, if need be. And the people who made that promise, who are or were willing to put their lives on the line, have kept their promise.

How shameful that people who do their work in clean, well-appointed rooms, driven about in big shiny cars, guarded by the very people who made that promise, somehow can't do the same.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

So, finally today, you might've noticed I've been out of the office a bit lately. I'm taking that trip a lot of us have - or will be taking. Having to get more involved in caring for an elderly parent. And, because I've been on that road, I found myself going through old drawers and boxes in a way I had no reason or right to do before now. And I found some letters. Beautiful, fragile, brown-with-age letters, to and from my father and his brothers. They're all from wartime. There's a letter to my father from his older brother, my Uncle George, just as my father enlisted and was accepted into the Army Air Corps. Uncle George was already in the service, serving in the cavalry. And I laughed when he said he would not offer my father big-brotherly advice because he might soon have to throw a salute at his younger brother. But then he went on and did offer advice, as my father was leaving New York for his first trip to the racially segregated South for basic training. Uncle George told him, it's like anything else, follow the rules and regulations and you'll be all right.

And then there was Uncle George's letter consoling him when my father did not get his wings and my uncle said, and this God's truth, you should think about logistics. I think there are going to be a lot of jobs in that after this is over. Too bad dad didn't listen. I might be telling you this for my country estate instead of from the studio. And then, there were the letters that really pierced my heart, between my dad and his younger brother, my Uncle Ron. Where, after a few pages of chit-chat about pretty girls and Christmas presents, they promised to take care of each other's families if anything happened to either of them. What gets me about those letters is that neither of them was married or had any children at that point. They were both still kids, really. Brave kids. They both enlisted, but essentially kids. This was a promise for the future. And, you know what? They kept that promise. Nothing dramatic. Neither wound up having to raise the other's children or take care of the other's widow, but they did step in when needed. Mainly, they were there for each other. A promise made, and a promise kept.

Can I just tell you - isn't it a shame that two people just out of their teens could keep a promise that their government now cannot. Now, I'm not going to get into the politics of who's at fault for the current government shutdown, or partial shutdown, or whatever you want to call it. Which side is supposedly standing on principle, and which one is supposedly just having a tantrum. I bet you probably made up your own mind about it. I suspect that where you stand depends in part on how you vote. If you think government generally does valuable and important work, or you think it's a hydra-headed monster that's eating the economy, well, that's going to influence how you see this whole thing.

But something's got to be wrong when we find that families of service members killed this past week in combat zones will not immediately get the $100,000 promised to them because the government is not functionally fully. And something's got to be wrong when family members won't be able to meet the remains of their loved ones as they arrive back through Dover Air Force Base unless they can pay for it themselves. And something's got to be wrong when the aging widows and veterans can't even apply for benefits due them for service during wars fought long ago, because there's nobody there to process the paperwork. And something's got to be wrong when survivor benefits already being paid might not last much longer because the Department of Veteran's Affairs could run out of cash if the shutdown continues.

Now, they're not the only citizens suffering right now, of course, but we don't ask most people to die for us if need be. And the people who made that promise, who are or were willing to put their lives on the line, have kept their promise. How shameful that people who do their work in clean, well-appointed rooms, driven about in big, shiny cars, guarded by the very people who made that promise somehow can't do the same. And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.