Since its inception as Decoration Day, to commemorate those who died in the “War Between the States,” Memorial Day has evolved into a day when we honor the more than one million American soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen who made the ultimate sacrifice to protect the liberties that are enshrined in our Constitution.

Almost 60 years have passed since I served during the Korean War, and this year my thoughts turn not to my own military service but to the larger record of the many generations of immigrants who came to this country seeking a better life.

Many Americans are not old enough to remember the time when the U.S. military did not receive accolades from the media or the public. Other than the few instances when our returning warriors rode in ticker-tape parades on Broadway, members of our Armed Forces were generally expected to seamlessly reintegrate into society.

Unfortunately, there were many cases of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), years of quietly dealing with war injuries, such as missing limbs, paralysis, or ailments such as those caused by Agent Orange, which were often not recognized or properly treated.

My father, who fought in France in World War I, was seriously injured, mustard gassed and shot, and I can still vividly recall the evidence of his injuries on his body as I was growing up. There were large circular scars on the backs of both hands and in various other places, and I would sometimes ask about them, receiving only the most meager of responses. He never voluntarily mentioned or talked about the war or what happened to him. As I grew older, I would occasionally go with him as he made sales calls for his business, and sometimes a few comments about the war were exchanged with his contemporaries. But that was rare. The impact of his wounds eventually shortened his life, and he died at age 56, an unsung and unheralded American warrior.

I never thought of him as a hero, and he never asked for or expected any expressions of gratitude for his service to his country. He ran away from home when he was 16 and lied about his age to join the Army, and I have no doubt that he never expected anything special for his military service. He is now buried in a Veterans cemetery in Los Angeles, a form of recognition that I’m sure he never considered and didn’t expect.

My brother, who was 4-1/2 years my senior, served in World War II while I was in high school. He was a member of Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation.” I graduated in 1946, and shortly thereafter my brother returned from over four years of service with the Navy in the South Pacific. He was assigned to a fleet-going tug, which had the unenviable assignment of pulling fighting ships out of harm’s way after they had been hit or disabled during sea battles. He was in 11 engagements, four of them major, and at one point, he was at sea for six months without returning to port.

When my brother returned from the Navy, he was discharged with no fanfare or public recognition and simply showed up at home, where he was expected to reintegrate into society without receiving any special consideration. I still have vivid memories of his emotional state at the time, which I’m sure would be considered PTSD today. In short, he was a nervous wreck. His nerves were so shot that we could not stand over his bed to wake him because he invariably came up fighting, so I would get down on the floor and reach up to touch him.

However, his nerves notwithstanding, he was expected to simply come home, find a job and make his way in society as if nothing had happened, along with the rest of the returning Veterans. By today’s standard, that is not only a tall order, but it’s difficult to imagine.

When I returned from service in Korea, we landed in Seattle, were loaded on trains and taken south to Fort Ord, Calif., where we were discharged in three days and given a train ticket to our hometown, which in my case was Los Angeles. When I arrived at home, my family had no idea I was coming and was taken by surprise when they opened the front door. Once again, there was no fanfare, no parades or special recognition – we just went home.

Looking back, it seems to me that most of the public was hardly aware that the war had ended and that the servicemen and women were returning. We were expected to get jobs or go back to school.

Then came the Vietnam War in the 1960s, and the situation for returning Vets was dramatically different than the earlier wars. This time our returning Veterans did receive a lot of attention, but unfortunately, it was often the wrong kind. Instead of being ignored, they were denigrated by many Americans, sometimes suffering such indignities as being spat upon when they appeared in public in uniform. At that point, I was in my 30s and almost totally focused on getting ahead in my career, to the point that I tuned out much of what was happening. But looking back, I consider what happened to be one of the more disgraceful episodes in America’s history.

Fast forward 50-plus years to today, and the general attitude of most Americans toward those who are or have served our nation in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although there are groups of anti-war types who hate the military in general, the recognition and treatment that most of our returning warriors have been accorded is a refreshing change. People often stop them in public to thank them, and major charitable organizations have sprung up to help care for the children of those who have been killed or seriously injured in action.

By way of contrast, President George Bush’s unscheduled and unannounced visit to the Dallas airport to greet returning servicemen and women as they disembarked from their planes and passed through the terminal was an inspiring example of the recognition that our returning warriors are receiving today.

I can only hope that our troops continue to receive the positive recognition and support from the American public that we are witnessing today. It’s a welcome change.

© 2012 Harris R. Sherline, All Rights Reserved