Veterans Day: Witnessing a New Greatest Generation

For generations, Veterans Day was all about old men, and of course, the members of their generation who never got to be old men.

These days, it's a different story.

Tuesday night, as men and women of the 1st Cavalry returned from Iraq, the pictures were every bit as poignant as those black and white images of GIs coming home from wars past.

VIDEO: Honoring the younger generation of war veterans
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This week, President Obama invited a more explicit comparison between the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and the great wars of the 20th century.

"This generation has more than proved itself the equal of those who've come before. We need to look to the past for greatness, because it is before our very eyes," Obama said Tuesday at Fort Hood.

At Fort Hood, which, this week, endured a brutal shooting, the president's sentiment rings true.

Veterans Day Around the World

"We don't need to look in the past for our heroism, we have all created our own name for the newer generation of the Army," said Spc. Jessica Duggan.

But what about the greatest generation?

"I feel, in many respects, that the men and women who, of their own free will, volunteered to serve in the military… are a magnificent extension of the greater generation," said Pat Foote, a retired Army brigadier general.

Members of the greatest generation, gathered at the World War II Memorial on the National Mall, told us they have the highest regard for young men and women now serving in harm's way.

Video of President Obama at Arlington Cemetery telling Veterans American will stand by them.
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"You're serving, you're getting killed, war is hell," one observed.

There are differences, of course. "In World War II, we knew who the enemy was and we fought with them. Now they could be with their enemies during the day and not know it," said another World War II veteran.

And, they acknowledged, the home front has changed. World War II was shorter than the current conflicts, but far more costly, more than 400,000 Americans killed. It touched everyone's lives, demanding sacrifice.

"No one is being asked to sacrifice now," said military historian and World War II veteran Paul Fussell.

"We drive SUVs, go to the mall every Sunday, and unfortunately, many of the people just seem to not really understand what's going on," said Foote.

Instead, the burden falls even more heavily on those who volunteer to go. Nearly half the active duty troops being sent to Iraq have been sent back again. Ten percent of them have been deployed 3 or more times.

"It's not really a matter of lessening the service [of those] who've gone before us. We stand on their shoulders. We learn from them. Many of these soldiers have sacrificed a great deal," said Chaplain Mike Lembke at Fort Hood.

Ever Changing Wars

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have already gone on longer and cost the U.S. taxpayers more than the Vietnam War did in today's dollars. But more than 58,000 American troops in Vietnam were killed in action. That's more than 10 times the number killed in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.

Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, was 17 years old when he watched the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor, and enlisted as soon as he graduated from high school. Now he's a champion for veterans' affairs in the U.S. Senate.

He said, "Today, we're able to save more of our wounded warriors than we were able to do at that time. As a result, we have the responsibility as a nation to take care of our wounded warriors and their families."

All the more reason that this Veterans Day belongs not just to the old men, but to their grandsons and granddaughters in uniform, too.

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