One of the first things I set up in my room this past August was a poster. It is a small black-and-white image of five U.S. Marines and a U.S. Navy Corpsman raising the American flag on Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima in 1945. It is one of the most famous images in American history, and I chose to hang it on my wall because for me it serves as a sort of reminder. There is something incredibly humbling about looking at that image and knowing that the soldiers on Iwo Jima had the courage to go to war thousands of miles from home and fight for a spit of land in the Pacific Ocean that 10 years earlier no one cared about. A lot of those men were my age. A lot were younger. There is something humbling about looking at that image and knowing that at the end of the battle three of the six men raising the flag lay dead. It reminds me what courage looks like. Last week, as Veterans Day approached, I started to look at that image a little harder.
On Monday, Veterans Day passed by quietly. I heard nothing from the administration, it was not mentioned in my classes, and I didn’t hear it in student conversations. I didn’t expect to hear much, but looking at the image on my wall I couldn’t settle for that.
The Pomona College community is great at respecting and commemorating a wide range of causes. Students will organize to support dining hall workers. They paint murals on Walker Wall in support of all kinds of causes. There are fundraisers, lectures, and student organizations to champion movements and purposes that are often overlooked or oppressed in the outside world. It seems like Pomona thinks of everything. So why don’t we think of veterans? Why didn’t someone write ‘Thank you’ on Walker Wall? Why didn’t the administration invite a veteran to speak on some of the challenges that former soldiers face in our society? Why isn’t there more than a little plaque in the Rains Center honoring the men and women who have left Pomona to serve? I see a community that does not care the way it should.
Pomona College is not a strong patriotic community, but I don’t expect it to be. I understand that giving us the day off on Cesar Chavez Day is more in tune with what Pomona stands for, but I don’t see why Veterans Day doesn’t get the same respect. I don’t see why, when members of the community choose the causes they want to honor, American soldiers get left off the list. There seems to be a collective sense of apprehension to support anything that might be pro-American in fear that, through that support, we might hurt the other causes that this community works so hard to defend. I think this a terrible mistake. There is a difference between supporting America, and all its policies and history, and having respect for the soldiers who made the commitment to serve. Regardless of how you feel about American policy, every one of us owes something to these soldiers. It is one thing to be a 20-year-old student debating American policy and history in class. It is another to be a 20-year-old soldier getting shot at on the other side of the world. I hope that as a community we can appreciate and be thankful for the men and women who have had the courage to put themselves in that position. I hope that we can show respect to the soldiers who went and served, regardless of their own political views. With draft systems in place, some ended up fighting solely for the safety of the soldiers around them. It’s not all patriotism. It is, however, all sacrifice for something greater than individual opinion. This is what Veterans Day is about.
I looked at the image on my wall a little harder on Monday. I thought about the kind of courage it takes to serve. I thought about Iwo Jima and the American soldiers who fought there, 6,281 of whom lost their lives. I thought about my great-uncle who was there, and I thought about the fact that if that battle happened today my brother, an active-duty Marine, would likely be there. Who knows, I could be there, too. A number of Pomona students could be there. I hope that we don’t consider our veterans simply as role-players in history. I hope that we respect them as husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, sons, and daughters who have all made sacrifices in their commitments to serve. If it would help us remember, I wish we could all have some kind of image or reminder for our veterans. Maybe we could have something to honor them on campus. Most of all, I hope that regardless of the day of the year we take the time to appreciate and thank our veterans. I am not asking Pomona students to go to a remote corner of the world and give their lives. I am asking us to bow our heads for just a few seconds and remember those who served. I don’t think that is too much to ask. It is simply what is right.