Thompson: Heroes Dinner conjures memories I had tried not to remember

WTC Smoking On 9-11By John Thompson
State Central Committee Member
Republican Party of Iowa


I attended the Greene County Elk’s annual “Heroes Dinner” on September 11th.  It was a good event.  It also got me thinking about things that for the last few years I have tried not to think about. The room was full of men and women who served their country from World War II to today.

Veterans today are somewhat different. Past generations have served in wars requiring large numbers of draftees. They had a generational understanding of the sacrifice of troops. The younger folks remember our grandfathers’ and fathers’ stories of war that seem so long ago that it’s almost like they are reciting a John Wayne movie. TV shows and movies such as M*A*S*H and Stripes catered to a popular understanding of military life that entertained countless veterans.

Today, most people’s concept of the military actually comes from pop culture.  If you didn’t do it yourself it is hard to comprehend what it was like to serve. I am grateful that so few in my generation have to face those horrors but I’m also heartbroken to realize that most people don’t understand it.

When I was 22, I was a sophomore at West Point. One morning in September I got an email from my tactical officer saying to “watch CNN. A jet just hit the world trade towers.”

I turned on the television and was hypnotized.  About an hour later I was in class. We pantomimed our calculus problems while watching the news coverage.

At my next class my instructor said, “If we don’t go to war for this what is our military for?”

In the afternoon I walked to Trophy Point which juts out on a high peak of the west bank of the Hudson River. I stared down the water towards New York City looking at the skyline for signs of smoke.  I grew up a lot that afternoon.

That evening it was revealed that the attack had likely originated from a terrorist group in Afghanistan.  CNN showed overhead footage of Kandahar lights.  It was a country I knew little about at the time.

As a sophomore you are assigned one freshmen (plebe) per semester in a role that is essentially your cadet apprentice. The next day my plebe knocked on my door and told me that his cousin was in the World Trade Tower and presumed dead.  This was a new challenge for me as a leader.  It was the only time I would be unprepared for a similar conversation.

Several weeks later my oldest brother, Chuck, received notice he was deploying to Afghanistan. My sister was also a cadet. We got in her car and raced to Fort Drum to see him off. A State Trooper briefly stopped us but promptly let us go when he realized the reason for our urgency. We missed Chuck’s departure by about 30 minutes. He would come back a much different person.

Over the next few months and years, whenever a graduate was killed in combat their name was announced over the cadet mess intercom just prior to sitting down for lunch.  The moments of silence became more and more frequent.

A few years later I was a graduate and preparing for my own deployment. The war would eventually take 14 of my classmates. A few months before I deployed my friend, Jacob Fritz, was kidnapped by Iranian special forces dressed as American Soldiers. As coalition forces closed in on the escape van, the Persian force executed Jacob while his hands were tied behind his back.

Nearly a year later, I would be escorting one of my closest friends under an American flag in a maudlin helicopter ride across the Iraq desert.   We landed and the mortuary affairs team carried him out of the bird on a stretcher. I got off the helicopter and saluted my friend for the last time.  I then hitchhiked to the field hospital to see another friend.  Hours earlier I was passing field dressings through a vehicle hatch so he could treat the bullet wound to his face while simultaneously killing bad guys.

Viet Nam veterans had it bad. Many civilians acted as if they were lepers who didn’t have the brains, connections or luck to escape service.  There is still a difference for the post 9/11 veterans. Many people cannot empathize with why a person would choose to risk so much. They assume that people who have come back must be somewhat off or there was something wrong with them to begin with. When discussing politically charged topics, people are condescending to the sacrifice and cite a father, brother cousin or friend that served.  They insist that by knowing somebody who was in the military that gives them equal footing to dismiss a veteran’s point of view.

Today’s veterans all chose to serve. They are a generation of warriors that will be treated like they had it coming. The wars have torn apart military families.  Judges assume that combat veterans are too prone to PTSD to parent when deciding custody. Employers worry that former troops are too aggressive or uptight for office jobs. As the military draws down and veterans look for federal agencies to transfer their service they are finding fewer opportunities.  The federal Human Resources departments have found clever ways to avoid hiring veterans; job listings are prone to quick cancellation if a veteran applies with preference points that would take the position from a bureaucrat that grew up in that agency.  The GI Bill would be a useful incentive if subsidized loans for any student were not so prolific that a college degree has very limited value.

I have no idea what it is like to storm the beach at Normandy. I don’t know what it’s like to have all your friends captured at Kasserine Pass. I haven’t been in an artillery fight near the 38th Parallel in Asia. I don’t know what it’s like to walk through the jungle in Viet Nam on a patrol without long-range artillery, drone surveillance and air support. I’ve never been spat on (but I have been called “baby-killer”).

Every generation has different challenges with war. But just as I don’t want my son to face the same nightmare in combat, if he chooses to serve, I want to ensure his service doesn’t haunt him as a veteran.

As parents it’s important to leave our children with better opportunities than we had. As I looked around the Elk’s lodge I saw three generations of men and women who did what was asked for their nation and children. I hope one day that is the example I set.  Never Forget!

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John Thompson of Jefferson is a graduate of West Point and Harvard University. He serves on the State Central Committee for the Republican Party of Iowa. Opinions are his own. He may be contacted at or at John Thompson for Iowa on Facebook.