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Benjamin Busch took to writing during a combat tour in Iraq. Busch spent 16 years in the Marines before his retirement in 2006. He offers these thoughts on honoring the nation's 22 million veterans.
BENJAMIN BUSCH: My grandfather told only one story about his years in the Army. He served in the 10th Mountain Division fighting the Nazis in the Italian Alps. The only evidence of those years I knew of was a frayed backpack and skis he kept. But there was more. When I was 13 or so, my father and I sat with my grandfather in his den.
I asked him about a small painting of a rocky peak capped with snow he had made with strokes of blue, gray and white years ago. My grandfather looked at it for a long moment. He said, I remember this kid, a private. We were being shelled by artillery, but they were shooting too high. We could hear the rounds pass just over our heads and hit the mountain somewhere behind us.
It shook the ground. There was this kid crouched across from me. As the rounds went over, I could see the color leave his face. And when they exploded behind us, I could see it come back. Up there on that mountain, that kid's face, dying and coming back to life, over and over. I'll never forget it. I learned later that he had made the painting while he recovered from his wounds in a hospital at the end of the war.
I looked at my father, who was leaning so far forward I thought he might fall out of his chair. His eyes were wide and, for a moment, he looked younger than I. I didn't realize he'd been waiting since 1945 for a single story about the war from his father. My grandfather never told another. In the six years since I left the Marines, what always strikes me is a veterans enduring attachment to their unit, their clear memory of places and comrades, the stunning drama of their missions or unique situational comedy of their everyday labors.
Most of these stories are never heard because no one ever asks for them. We mention sacrifice on days like this, but sacrifice likely isn't the thing a veteran will recall. It will be the stories. It's these tales that make the military experience comprehensible to those who never serve in this way. So what if today instead of thanking a veteran for their service and then passing by, you take a moment to ask them for a story. We've all got one to tell.
CORNISH: That was retired Marine Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin Busch. His memoir published this year is called "Dust To Dust." For more veteran's reflections, come to NPR.org/opinion.
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