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A century after World War I, mourning lessons unlearned

November 12, 2018

The somber faces in the crowd appeared to be in tune with the chilly, wet weather as the first of 21 bells tolled Sunday at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery and elsewhere to mark the armistice that ended World War I.

The combatants of that war, and almost all the civilians, are gone.

Those bundled in jackets and sheltered from a misty rain by umbrellas during the one-hour, 25-minute ceremony carried technology the likes of which doughboys of the day never imagined — digital cameras, video recorders and hand-sized cell phones that captured the moment and shared it with the world instantly.

When World War I ended, movies had been around for only about 20 years; “talkies” wouldn’t become popular until the Depression. Radio, a relatively new technology, fell under government regulation in 1912 — the year the Titanic sank. Typhoid vaccine became available to the public two years later, but polio would strike terror for decades to come.

War, on the other hand, was quite modern. Tanks, machine guns, artillery, mustard gas, airplanes and disease filled Europe’s cemeteries over the four years of World War I. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme, Britain lost 57,470 troops, 19,240 of them killed, according to the BBC. By war’s end, 65 million would die.

British author H.G. Wells called it “the war to end all wars,” but it was just a down payment. Another 60 million would perish in World War II, two-thirds of them civilians, and other conflicts would follow in Korea, Vietnam, the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Bitter clashes would fill the history books — Bastogne, Tarawa, Chosin, Hue and the second battle of Fallujah, called Operation Phantom Fury.

“I honor those who sacrifice, but I mourn that as a species we have not cracked the code on this,” retired Army Lt. Col. Jim Tripp, 55, a veteran of the Iraq war, said after the ceremony closed with rifle volleys and taps. “I wish that people smarter than me could figure out how do we avoid this.”

The thought echoed with other veterans at the cemetery, the traditional gathering place for Veterans Day in a city called “Military City, U.S.A.” because of its deep ties to the Army and Air Force. It’s been home to some of the nation’s best-known commanders, from Robert E. Lee and John J. Pershing to Douglas MacArthur and Dwight D. Eisenhower.

The city has long marked the holiday with a solemn ceremony, one featuring patriotic music, solemn rituals that include posting the colors, the world-traveled Texas Children’s Choir, and a naturalization ceremony that this year saw eight people become American citizens.

Some wore military uniforms.

Tripp’s wife, Katherine, teared up when she saw an elderly veteran, perhaps in his 90s, clap as the choir rehearsed “The Star Spangled Banner.” One of the first to arrive, he stood up with the help of his son and sang “The Air Force Song” during the ceremony’s service medley.

“That was the first time I got to hear his voice. He sang very excitedly,” she said.

Air Force veteran Tom Pike worked in a contingency hospital in Germany during Gulf War I.

He did not go to the war zone.

“I’m fortunate to be a veteran who didn’t have to give his life,” said Pike, who served 21 years, half as an enlistee, before retiring as a captain.

The ceremony in many ways looked just as it has for years, right down to the rain that fell, but the emphasis on the 100th anniversary of World War I’s end made it different. Bells not only tolled at the cemetery, where 7,331 World War I veterans are buried, but also at St. Mary’s University. There, and in cities across the Lone Star State that include Fredericksburg and Houston, the sound of tolling bells filled the air, as did the crack of rifles firing and, finally, haunting silence.

Veterans Day began as Armistice Day, declared by the United States, Great Britain and France to mark the cease-fire that ended World War I at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. Congress redesignated the day in 1954 to honor all serving in America’s wars.

Texans played a big role in the war, with about 200,000 troops serving from August 1917 to the end, most of them in France. The 36th and 90th Infantry Divisions were called up, and while most of those going to war were men, 450 women served as nurses, according to the Texas World War I Centennial Committee.

In all, 5,170 Texans died, seven of them women from the U.S Army & Navy Nurse Corps. A third of all the deaths occurred in the U.S. due to the influenza epidemic of 1918. Four Texans were awarded the Medal of Honor, one from San Antonio. Given the medal posthumously, Pvt. David Bennes Barkley was Hispanic.

As bad as the war was, it helped shape the future of veterans’ care at home. The changes were small at first, but a profound transformation would come with a series of conflicts far from America’s shores over the ensuing decades.

In 1921, Congress combined all World War I veterans programs into one to create the Veterans Bureau. Public Health Service veterans’ hospitals were transferred to the bureau, and an ambitious hospital construction program for World War I veterans commenced.

Soldiers exposed to mustard gas and other chemicals required special care, prompting the opening of tuberculosis and neuropsychiatric hospitals. Benefits were expanded to cover disabilities not service-related, and in 1928 admission to bureau facilities was extended to women, National Guard and militia veterans.

The VA was created two years later.

The Veterans Health Administration began as the first facility for Civil War veterans of the Union Army, with President Abraham Lincoln signing a law creating a national soldiers and sailors asylum in 1865. It’s now the largest of three administrations in VA, which this year has a $208.8 billion budget. Roughly 19.6 million veterans were thought to be alive as of Sept. 30, according to the VA. Just 496,777 of those survivors served in World War II, a conflict involving 16 million Americans.

With Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, World War II was the first of three major U.S. conflicts that ran over the next 34 years. Korea and Vietnam followed, producing 1.7 million and 3.4 million veterans in the theater of war and millions of others serving during those eras worldwide. Few who served in all three wars are still around, just 16,349, but millions of others have since fought in Grenada, Panama, Gulf War I, Iraq, Afghanistan and other parts of the globe, including Syria.

The war on terrorism has run 17 years with no end in sight.

Retired Army Staff Sgt. Steve Zavala, a veteran of Operation Just Cause, the 1989 invasion of Panama, dismissed the chilly weather Sunday, especially when compared with the privations troops endured in wars going back to Valley Forge, the home of George Washington’s Continental Army in 1777.

“We take a look starting with the Revolutionary War … and the true hardship of Valley Forge,” said Zavala, 61, of Wilson County. “We move forward to trench warfare in World War I, we get to see the horrors of Bastogne, and we get to see the Chosin few of Korea, the misery of Vietnam. It continues today, so this is nothing.”

Sig Christenson covers the military and its impact in the San Antonio and Bexar County area. Read him on our free site, mySA.com, and on our subscriber site, ExpressNews.com. | sigc@express-news.net | Twitter: @saddamscribe

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