A gathering of heroes

A gathering of heroes

It was about as poignant a moment as one could imagine:

The National World War II Memorial. On the National Mall. On the Saturday before Memorial Day weekend in 2011.

The site is perfectly framed at one end by the Lincoln Memorial. At the other, it’s the Washington Monument.

It was another Honors Flight Weekend. Hundreds upon hundreds of World War II veterans, many in wheelchairs, are streaming into the memorial.

Bus after bus arrives from the airport with a police escort. Greater Pittsburgh is represented well. Many know it will be their last deployment.

And greeting just about every one of them on this pristine mid-spring day a decade ago is Bob Dole, in an impeccable dress shirt as crisp as it is white.

The former U.S. senator of Kansas — erstwhile vice-presidential and presidential candidate and, of course, decorated and badly injured World War II veteran — stands tall and displays his characteristic wit and personal touch with each vet.

A stool later is brought for him as the day grows long and there’s no shortage of vets pouring in.

“What’s your story?” Dole asks.

“Where’s home?”

“Where were you deployed?”

 “I remember that!” he chortles.

Standing just behind Dole and off to his right, this observer, then editorial page editor of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (where this commentary first appeared 11 years ago), hears the stories and the mutual words of encouragement.

The smiles are as bright as the sun this day. The affection and bond are unparalleled among these bands of brothers.

But, too, one can almost smell the salt of the tears.

Not far away, more veterans are paying their respects to their commander in chief at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial.

And soon, throngs of kids on their spring school trips are surrounding them.

“Can I have my picture taken with a hero?” asks one girl, not even in her teens, unprompted.

Soon, lots of heroes are having lots of pictures taken with a generation born such a short time ago.

You can see the gratitude in the eyes of the vets that children so young truly understand.

They’ve been taught well.

They’ve learned well.

“There is hope for America,” you can almost hear these veterans say.

A decade later, many of those veterans are gone, including Bob Dole. And many of those kids today are in their 20s. Here’s hoping the object lessons stuck.

And let’s all hope and pray that the lessons of May 21, 2011, reach out and teach us all anew on Memorial Day 2022.

God forbid that we ever forget.

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).