Veterans Day: Remembering those who served

There was a moment that gave this meaning and it happened on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, following the greatest war the world had yet seen.

World War I came to an end in a small French town called Rethondes in 1918, and was honored across the globe by allies declaring the holiday, Armistice Day.

After World War II, however, the day was given new purpose as a tribute to veterans of all wars. The United States redesignated Nov. 11 as Veterans Day to honor veterans of all U.S. wars in 1954.

The date is still a national holiday in many allied nations which also commemorate the service members of their armed forces. The British celebrate Remembrance Day, in Belgium it’s called the Day of Peace and in France the day is still honored as Armistice Day.

To the Linde family of McDonough, the day has always held a more personal meaning with a number of relatives serving in the armed forces. But two years ago, the date became unforgettable.

Staff Sergeant John Linde, 30, along with three other soldiers from Fort Drum in the 10th Mountain Division, were killed when a roadside bomb detonated near their convoy Nov. 5, 2007 in the northern Kirkuk Province of Iraq.

Sgt. Linde was born Nov. 11, 1976 and today would have been his 33rd birthday.

“We’ve had a lot of service members in the family through all the years. Veterans Day was always something of significance. Of course it’s even more significant to us because it was the day of our son’s birth,” said Linde’s father, John W. Linde.

Sgt. Linde was an 11-year Army veteran and had returned to Iraq two months earlier for his second tour of duty. He was the recipient of the Purple Heart and Bronze Star.

He left behind his wife Vilma, whom he met in Union City High school, N.J., his hometown. The couple were married in April 1998 and have an 8-year-old daughter. Sgt. Linde also has another daughter from a previous relationship, who is now living with her mother.

Linde Sr. also served in the Army during the 1970s and said this is not the first time his family has suffered loss. His sister lost her husband during the Vietnam conflict.

“I think it’s important that people be thankful for all that we have in this country because if it wasn’t for our veterans of foreign wars, we wouldn’t’ have any of the freedoms we enjoy and take for granted. But the veterans know the cost; they paid the price,” said Linde.

Linde said his family still lives in McDonough and marks the occasion by congregating with relatives – among them are veterans of every major U.S. conflict since World War II.

Also each year the family makes a trip in the month of November to Arlington Cemetery in Washington D.C. to visit their son’s grave.

Linde said he attended a Memorial Day event at Fort Drum this year where he learned something that shocked him.

“There was a two star general giving remarks and he said only two percent of the U.S. population actually serves in the military. I was shocked,. I figured at least 10 percent given how many we have in our family,” he said.

Linde said he hopes people understand the rising level of professionalism and technical skill demanded by today’s armed forces. He also wants people to understand the advances in medical technology have saved countless lives that would have otherwise been lost in past wars.

“We should all be thankful. Find a veteran and just thank them – not just today but every day,” he said.

Local Army Colonel Edward B. Downey agrees.

“It’s very simple: thank them for their service, extend your hand and shake theirs. I know that means more to me than anything else,” said Downey.

Downey has served in the U.S. Army for the last 33 years, six years on active duty and the rest as a reservist. Much of that time was spent in the Judge Advocate General’s Office (JAG) and he now operates a law office in Norwich, his hometown.

He was deployed to Bosnia from 1994 to 95 and then again called back again to serve in Iraq in 2004 and 2005. While in Iraq, he served on General David H. Petraeus’ legal staff, helping create a new judicial system for the fledgling Iraqi military. Downey aided in crafting the Iraqi military code of justice and helped integrate both judges and lawyers into the new Iraqi military.

“For both deployments, the highlight was helping to set up and stabilize a new government. Other than getting married and the birth of my kids, they are among my most important days,” said Downey, recalling elections in Iraq and Bosnia carried out under U.S. protection.

“The days when the people showed up, waiting hours in line to vote in an election despite the threat of death and violence against their lives, it felt good to be a part of that. Allowing those people to vote – we take it so for granted here – and to see what it takes to set up a democracy, it is the highlight of my career,” he said.

After 33 years of service, Downey said he is currently putting in the paperwork for retirement. He’s traveled to 16 foreign countries on five different continents. “None of them vacation spots. The army never seem to invade a nice place to go,” joked the colonel.

His son Ryan enlisted the Army in May after completing college. “Given the economy, it seems a pretty good idea. They’ll pay for his school,” he said. “We talk to him about the Army on phone and 33 years down the road, some things just don’t change. It reminds me of all the reasons I complained about the Army,” laughed Downey.

Downey urges people to reach out to at least one veteran today.

“I remember being in some tent in Bosnia waiting for my 15 minute turn to call the wife back home for a holiday or an anniversary,” he said. Downey estimated that in his three decades of service, he spent at least five solid years away from his family.

“A lot of the sacrifices servicemen make aren’t always done in glory,” he added.

While Downey’s son joined the military in May, 20-year veteran Sergeant Pete Heggie of the National Guard Reserves retired in the same month.

The Oxford resident was assigned to the 204th Engineer Battalion in Binghamton and was deployed to Iraq in 2004.

“Our duties there were mostly as a support unit doing carpentry and masonry; we even helped to build some schools,” said Heggie.

“In Kirkuk, we repaired a school that was attacked by Saddam’s troops at the start of the war. Part of the wall was missing and it was bullet ridden,” he said.

Heggie said a few of the men he served with were killed during his tour and that his closet call came on Dec. 23, 2004.

Just after an early lunch at the U.S. base in Mosul, Heggie left the mess hall tent. Within moments of his departure, a loud explosion ripped through the base and killed 22 American soldiers and civilians.

“The guy came in disguised as an Iraqi solider and touched off a bomb he had hidden on him. I was in the mess hall right before bomb went off and ran back to help carry out the casualties,” he said.

Despite his experience, Heggie is now trying to re-enter the military and serve again in Afghanistan.

“I left because my father wanted me to and he passed away this June. I can’t help but want to go back,” he said. “I liked it, I really did, making a difference and I wouldn’t mind going back overseas. The camaraderie among soldiers is an amazing experience you can’t describe,” he said.

Heggie said he’ll be attending the Oxford Veterans Day Parade today and wants other people to do some small gesture to show their support.

“Just show up, say thanks, be a good neighbor. That’s all I need,” he said.

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