My personal connection to our veterans has always been through my father, Frank, and my brother, Greg. They are buried a few steps from each other at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery.
A year after Greg was killed in a fighter jet crash near Ellington Field outside Houston, my sister Kathy wrote the following Veterans Day meditation. It was published in the Houston Chronicle, the Los Angeles Times and several other newspapers nationwide.
On Veterans Day over the years, I have read it on the radio and shared it online.
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“Who Will Remember The Heroes of Peace?”
by Kathleen Simpson
Veterans Day 1981
The vast Texas sky was cloudless, silent. An Indian summer sun baked the rows of small white crosses. The honor guard dressed in Air Force blue raised the flag above the casket of the young pilot. Five times the jolt of rifles cracked the air. The bugler raised the trumpet to his lips. On the breeze the strains of “Taps” lingered, faltered, breathlessly faded away. From the widow and the mother, from the sisters and the brother, from the small sea of blue-dressed men and women, there was not a whimper to hear, not a sigh.
Suddenly the silence shattered. Thundering toward the grave of the young pilot, four Phantom fighter jets screamed across the sky. Once they circled low over the rows of small white crosses, over the small blue human sea. Racing again toward the grave site, one plane broke the formation, thrust its steely nose straight up into the sun and vanished.
It is a farewell reserved for heroes. For combat aces and high ranking officers of distinguished career, the acrobats of the air fly by. But the young pilot, who was my brother, had never flown into battle. His prayer was that he would never fly to kill. Educated in the classroom of war, he abhorred the lesson that the innocent are the ultimate victims of the bomb and the sword. When he flew an F-101 jet fighter of the Texas Air National Guard on October 22, 1980, he believed in his mission to protect the innocent with his quicksilver wings of peace.
But the winged horse my brother rode that day was destined to be a Pegasus of power and peril. Seconds after he lifted the huge machine into the air from Ellington Air Force Base, an explosion ripped part of the tail from the plane. On the ground below him a crowded subdivision lay in the path of the flaming, flailing craft. A horrified witness reported: “The jet banked steeply to the left, went into a steep climb and then fell into the open field. It looked to me like the pilot intentionally turned away to avoid hitting those houses.”
In the last 60 seconds of his life, my brother’s only thought must have been of the innocent people living in the innocent safety of their homes below him. The airplane burned into the dust of a pasture just 500 yards away from those homes. The investigators retrieved his helmet from the crash. They bequeathed it to his widow, who keeps it for their small son. Sleep well, brother Greg; your prayer is answered. Never will you fly to kill.
Sifting still through the wreckage of my grief, I wonder. On the day of the Armistice of the first global war – the war that Woodrow Wilson called the war to end all wars – I wonder about the price that the governments of this century have elected to pay in the purchase of peace.
I wonder about all the brave young warriors of this peace, men and women proud of their mission, honored by their duty to safeguard our shores. Do their spouses sleep soundly while they fly through the night? Do the children play fearlessly in the schoolyard as their fathers or mothers crawl into the missile hole at day? Who will remember the heroes of this peace?
A few feet from where my brother now rests, another pilot sleeps. This man, our father, also abhorred violence and war. But as a young man my father saw havoc in the skies above Europe. Dreams of the innocent, the faceless victims of the bombs that fell from his plane, haunted his sleep every night he lived.
Dreamless now, father and son together sleep. The old veteran of war shares the soil of liberty with the young veteran of peace.
Today, the 11th day of November, at the 11th hour in the morning, flags fall to half-staff across the country in honor of the nation’s veterans. The statesmen lay huge floral wreaths at the monuments of the nameless soldiers. The widows crown the crosses of their loved ones with garlands from their gardens. Silence falls for a moment over the burial grounds of the warriors.
Then cannon volley and bugles blare. It is festival time in the graveyard. The 5-year-old son of my dead brother cheers as the mighty Phantom jets scream their power across the sky. He delights in the pageant of the parade marching by. His mother takes his small hand in hers when she cries. What will she tell him when he asks her why?