As I watched gray-haired old soldiers salute the flag last Friday, some standing only with the aid of a cane, my heart broke for these men and women of Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation.”

In the furrowed faces of World War II veterans gathered for our Day of Prayer and Remembrance, I saw the rutted roads of Germany and the cratered fields of France — places I know only from history books and films, but which their war-scarred memories know as well as their childhood homes.

Not a living soul has seen such battlefields in America. Not until Tuesday. 

As World War II veterans watched live coverage of Tuesday’s terrorist attack on New York and Washington, it was like nothing they had experienced in more than a half-century. Not since Allied soldiers marched across Europe or into Japan had they seen anything like the carnage and destruction of Sept. 11.

This was what they had fought to spare their families from ever having to see. This was why they put their lives in peril, why many of their comrades never came home.

I’ve heard the stories of these men from my father’s generation. But, I can’t begin to imagine what flashed across their minds as they witnessed an attack on the homeland which so many lives were sacrificed to preserve.

The rubble of New York’s World Trade Center — this was Dresden, Berlin, or London during the blitz. How could it be New York City?

Was all they did in vain? 

Not at all.

A half-century after the “Greatest Generation” rid the world of the menaces of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan, young men and women are again picking up the colors, strengthened in spirit and determination by the example of these aging warriors of the last great war.

We are reassured in the wake of Sept. 11 that no handful of outlaws can topple our nation, though they reduce buildings to rubble.

The fires of New York and Washington seem only to have tempered the steel of American citizens. Our skyscrapers and offices are mere houses of cards which belie the steel of the our character. Never has the world known such an amalgam of races and cultures which combine today in the men and women joined under the Stars and Stripes.

The disparities that sometimes separate us are but threads in contrast to the fibers of steel that bind us, not only in patriotism, but in worship, as millions look to God for guidance and comfort.

As world conflict and courage shaped that “Greatest Generation” of our fathers, so will the threats of this new millennium prove the mettle of another. 

As Franklin Roosevelt declared and the heroes of World War II ably demonstrated, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

We look to our veterans as proof that we need not even fear that. 

Jim Hamilton is a freelance writer in Buffalo. Contact him at jhamilton000@centurytel.net. A version of this column previously published in the Buffalo Reflex. ©️ James E. Hamilton 2019. 

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