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A World War II resiliency lesson

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Scott T. Sturkol
  • Air Mobility Command Public Affairs
Just two short years ago, I can recall an air refueling mission I covered while flying in a KC-10 Extender over an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia where I watched this Air Force plane refuel more than 10 U.S. Navy F-18 fighters flying a patrol as part of a wartime mission.

Seeing those Navy pilots from that vantage point was incredible. I know I'm not the only one to have seen such a sight, but at the same time there are a precious few who have. Though it was a sight to behold, I can also remember how it made me think about the sacrifice all service members make during these overseas contingency operations. It also made me think about the things they've seen, heard and what might be running through their memories.

Now, let me have you jet back even farther to 70 years ago, World War II, and a different overseas operation. In March 1942, the war was raging in the Pacific front and the U.S. military was battling the Imperial Japanese forces on sea and on land.

At the time, the U.S. was only at war for four months and it was in that month where Japanese forces were spreading across the Pacific, history shows. Japanese aircraft had attacked Australia and also landed forces in the Solomon Islands to include one island named Guadalcanal.

Over the course of months of fighting in Guadalcanal, an Allied victory was had in 1943 but at a steep cost on both sides. Thousands of lives and many Navy and transport ships were lost by both fighting forces.

In a 20-year-old documentary I watched recently that highlighted the 50th anniversary of World War II, it showed how some "Greatest Generation" veterans who made their way back to Guadalcanal to recall their experiences. What they experienced, as one of them said in the documentary, was "pure hell."

As I watched the documentary with veterans from the Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, Army and Army Air Corps (now the Air Force), I saw how they recalled the combat they saw and how they fondly remembered the fellow service members they fought with who never made it back.

Some of those veterans even shared experiences for the documentary which they had kept to themselves for more than 50 years. Amazing, I thought, how hard it was for them to not only have experienced the "pure hell" they went through, but also how they kept some of that "pure hell" bottled up inside them for so long.

At the same time, as I saw the documentary progress, these same veterans were changing. By telling their memories, remembering their fallen comrades and releasing their 50-year secrets, it seemed they felt better about themselves. It was at this point I learned a new lesson about something that never changes -- the importance of resiliency.

Why resiliency? If anyone had to deal with the worst experiences people can go through, it was those combat veterans from Guadalcanal. Some of them discussed the nightmares they had and the troubles they had once the war was over. However, they also said they sought the help they needed and moved on with their lives "like their buddy would want them to."

One of the veterans also said, "I can only hope I've represented my buddies well in the life that I have led. They gave their lives to save our country and I survived to tell their stories. I think of them every day."

Now let me take you back to the present. Today we have a new and great generation of service members. Those people include those Navy fighter pilots I saw on that air refueling mission, the mobility Airmen I was flying with, and the Army troops and Marines on the ground those fighters were supporting.

Those World War II vets learned to grow and thrive in the face of challenges, and they bounced back from adversity. They proved that by remembering what they experienced after more than five decades. We can too.

I ask that you remember what our veterans of today are doing for their country. Remember to take care of them and if you are a veteran, remember how those World War II heroes made it through their tough times.

I'd also like to add that what I learned doesn't only apply to veterans. In life we all come across many challenges that can affect you whether you're associated with the military or not. The lesson learned is to seek help when you need it and do the things you need to do to help you become a better and happier person.

So I say thank you to those World War II heroes for giving me one more reason to thank them! My resiliency will certainly be better as I move on with my life.