Gulick: Veterans Day a rightful tribute to generations of heroes

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Veterans Day is one of the most important American holidays. There wouldn't be an America at all if it were not for the military veterans who have served our nation throughout our history. And America certainly would not be the strongest military power in the world today without them.

The courageous colonial militiamen who faced down the well-armed and highly trained British army in the Battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, became America's first veterans. It would be more than a year before the Declaration of Independence would be signed, but those armed colonists fought at the risk of their own lives that day, and many of them made the ultimate sacrifice. And the nation they served did not yet exist except in their dreams.

From that day through more than 248 years later, American veterans have served, fought and protected on behalf of their fellow Americans. And they have inspired generations of their countrymen with their courage, heroism, sacrifice and perseverance.

I like to honor veterans every Nov. 11 by personally spending time during the day pondering their incredible contributions to achieving and maintaining the freedom we enjoy as Americans.

I think every year about those steadfast militiamen at Lexington and Concord, about the heroism of more than 50,000 American troops who were part of the Allied contingent who stormed the beaches on D-Day and those who served their country in so many other ways during America's long history

And I recall every year a story of two World War II veterans that inspires me and touches my heart every time I think about it. It's a story I read about from an unexpected source -- Ed Sullivan.

Sullivan is best known for hosting a weekly live television variety show called "The Ed Sullivan Show," but he began his career as a journalist. He started as a sportswriter, began also covering Broadway and other show business, and he became an important show business presence himself.

He published in 1959 a book titled "Christmas with Ed Sullivan" that was a compilation of Christmas memories from his celebrity friends along with short stories and essays about Christmas. He began the book with a long essay about his favorite Christmas memories from his life.

Sullivan wrote about how he helped provide entertainment shows throughout the years during World War II for wounded military personnel at Halloran General Hospital in New York City. The Christmas Eve entertainment shows they staged were part of some of his most moving and memorable Christmases.

Celebrities were eager to perform for free at the shows for the wounded servicemen and were quite willing to give up part of their own Christmas Eves to be with them at the hospital. Sullivan wrote of one Christmas when the guests included Jimmy Durante, Jack Benny, the Andrews Sisters, Beatrice Lilly, actor Bruce Cabot, baseball great Babe Ruth and others.

After the performance in the auditorium, the celebrities went to the wards to meet the young men who had not been able to see the show. Babe Ruth was a particular favorite. He was dressed as Santa Claus and had a huge pack on his back filled with gifts he would give the patients.

Can you imagine what a thrill that must have been for those young men -- many of whom had grown up idolizing the Great Bambino and following his exploits in newspapers?

Jimmy Durante was a singer and actor who was popular in Hollywood, on Broadway and on the radio. He died in 1980 at the age of 86, but on that day in the early 1940's, he was in ill health and staying in a suite at the Hotel Astor in New York.

When Sullivan invited Durante to perform at the military hospital, the singer had to get permission from his doctor. The doctor allowed it, on the condition that Durante perform only one number. Sullivan readily agreed, knowing that even one number from Durante would be a huge hit with the crowd, and he made the one-song promise to the doctor.

Durante performed the allowed song, a raucous and humorous song that earned a huge ovation from the delighted audience. Sullivan went onto the stage after the number and took the microphone, preparing to explain why Durante would not be doing additional songs. To his astonishment, Durante ran onto the stage, took the microphone from Sullivan and launched into a second number. And then he did a third number. And another after that.

When he left the stage after the fourth song, Sullivan found him backstage and asked Durante why he violated his doctor's stipulation. He saw Durante was weeping, and the singer explained, "Ed, take a look at those two kids out there. When I saw them applauding, I figured that even the doc would have told me I had to go on."

Sullivan looked out front and saw a lieutenant who had lost his right arm in the war sitting next to a private who had lost his left arm, and they were watching the next performer together.

The two had figured out a way to applaud the entertainers by sitting together and clapping the lieutenant's left hand against the private's right hand with, as Sullivan described it, great spirit and not the slightest self-consciousness. The sight moved him as much as it had Durante, so much so that Sullivan included it among his favorite Christmas memories.

They were two young American men who had suffered great losses in the war and would be going back home to different lives than they ever imagined.

But instead of being depressed and feeling sorry for themselves, they demonstrated remarkable American spirit and provided impressive inspiration that they were well on their way back to resuming their lives.

I would wager those two veterans went on to have happy and productive lives.

It is overwhelming to think about the collective sacrifices that have been made by American veterans. The two men Sullivan told about were among many who suffered injuries while serving their country. Many others made the ultimate sacrifice, losing their very lives.

Even those who survived unscathed during their military service made sacrifices by interrupting their lives and being separated from their loved ones while they served their fellow Americans.

And it must be remembered that all the veterans who have protected Americans' freedom during the various eras they served were also protecting the freedom of future generations of Americans. All of us today benefit from their service.

Americans today owe veterans a debt that can never be repaid, and veterans deserve the respect of a holiday each year that recognizes their crucial service to their country -- from Lexington and Concord until now.

(Joe Gulick retired from the Avalanche-Journal after a career as a reporter and opinion page editor.)

This article originally appeared on Lubbock Avalanche-Journal: Gulick: Veterans Day a rightful tribute to generations of heroes