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A remembrance on Flag Day

Flag Day, the second and least acknowledged of our “patriotic trilogy” (Memorial and Independence Days), was introduced to remind Americans about the significance of Old Glory and its accompanying oath written by our State’s own Rev. Francis Bellamy. “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.” The one-time pastor of Little Falls’ First Baptist Church would have been displeased with the words “under God” added to his pledge by Congressional decree in 1954. He was a staunch advocate of the principle of separation of church and state.

Upon examination, the words of the pledge — especially the final three — pertain to an ideal America. We should all be aware that in certain ways we are not one nation, we absolutely are not indivisible and justice does not prevail for all as exemplified countless times throughout our history. The one I’d like to address today is the embarrassing lack of justice for our troops returning home from wars past and present.

In the 19th century, England produced some of history’s finest writers, including Alfred Lord Tennyson and Rudyard Kipling. Years ago my Memorial Day essay featured the former’s classic poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” Today, it’s Rudyard’s turn. Many readers may recall his most famous writings, The Jungle Book, Gunga Din and Kim, all set in India and made into successful movies. Less well-known is a poem he wrote when he was 16. A take-off on Tennyson’s “Charge, “ it’s ironically relevant to the plight of today’s veterans. Titled “The Last of the Light Brigade,” Kipling’s poem begins: (please italicize)

There were 30 million English who talked of England’s might.

There were 20 broken troopers who lacked a bed for the night.

They had neither food nor money, neither service nor trade;

They were only shiftless soldiers, the last of the Light Brigade.

That British soldiers were lavishly praised during times of national crisis and ignored or shunned after they came marching home, doomed to suffer depredation and degradation, was a frequent theme of Kipling’s speeches and writing. The survivors of” The Charge” had returned home to an England unprepared and/or unwilling to help them deal with the multitude of problems resulting from their combat experiences. As he states in the poem’s final stanza:

O 30 million English that babble of England’s might,

Behold there are 20 heroes who lack their food to-night;

Our children’s children are lisping to honor the charge they made-

And we leave to the streets and workhouse the last of the Light Brigade!

In 1881, among the poorest residents of the world’s richest country were its veterans. The paradox was striking. And it’s just as striking in America today. All one has to do is change a few words and numbers and Kipling’s poem is descriptive of the plight of our veterans following most of our conflicts. He refers to 20 Light Brigadiers possessing little food or money, aimlessly wandering the streets. The number of homeless vets in America today is estimated at 200,000. Many suffer from a myriad of problems including Post Traumatic Stress, Traumatic Brain Injury, alcohol and substance abuse and depression. Because they didn’t or couldn’t get the help they needed, they’ve ended up a veritable army of paupers pushing grocery carts to nowhere. Their haunting presence begs the question-where’s their justice?

Neglecting the troops is not a modern-day phenomenon. Particularly tragic was the injustice visited upon an estimated million Civil War vets following their war. Addicted to the morphine they were administered while waiting for and after medical treatment, these victims of the “soldiers’ sickness” returned home to be shunned and debased, eventually exiled by loved ones incapable of understanding or tolerating their aberrant behavior. They ended up in one of four ways: alone and in agony; together in agony (an army of hobos camped out near the tracks); incarcerated in agony (reduced to stealing to eat and/or get a fix like the bugler in a memorable Little House… episode); or permanently relieved of agony by their own hands.

And then there were the mustard gas victims of World War I. The lucky ones in that senseless bloodbath died on the fields of” gory.” The unfortunate ones made the mistake of inhaling the poisonous fumes emanating from the green death fog unleashed on them by the enemy. One breath could result in irreparable damage to their lungs. No longer useful, they were sent home-broken troopers whose burden on their families ended when they finally coughed themselves to death. Help from the country they had served with valor? None. Where was the justice?

Kipling writes that eventually “the fatted souls of the English were scourged with the thing called shame.” That eventuality has now arrived for this nation. Rather than dismissively hide our heads, we can all act together irrespective of our differences by writing our representatives and demanding that they work to guarantee that our veterans and active-duty troops receive the justice they deserve in the forms of: disability benefits quickly adjudicated, jobs and job training, educational opportunities, decent wages, rehabilitation without cost for as long as needed, timely appointments at VA facilities, competent counselors, in service and out, who know the difference between PTS and TBI and that turning those effected into drug dependent Thorazine zombies will not end their “smothering dreams,” a comprehensive suicide prevention program which involves families and additional VA outreach centers (e.g. Rome’s).

The red, white and blue is a truly beautiful presence-especially as it flutters in lilac perfumed breezes beside gravestones in cemeteries throughout the nation, standing sentinel over the final resting places of the men and women who gave some or all in the service of their country. By remembering daily what our flag represents and by living the words of its pledge, we can help ensure that “justice for all” becomes a reality not only for our veterans and their families, but for everyone.

Ray Lenarcic is a 1965 State University of New York at Fredonia graduate and is a resident of Herkimer.

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