Veterans Day is an important moment for us to reflect on and cherish our family, friends, and neighbors who answered the call to serve our country. This year is unique in that it marks the 100th anniversary of the first unit of American combat troops to arrive in France during World War I.
Not only did WWI drastically alter the face of global politics, but, for many young Americans, the war was their first exposure to the world outside their small communities. Shortly after our country’s declaration of war in April of 1917, young men from towns like Woodward, Okla., shipped off to France with the first American Expeditionary Force.
This centennial brings back my memory of a family reunion 40 years ago.
My grandfather walked up to me and some of my younger relatives. “Go talk to Cousin Vern,” he told us. “He was in the war.”
The war he was referring to was, of course, World War I, and Vern Kendall was one of the first American troops in the trenches in France.
Vern told us that it was not longer than a couple weeks before his unit was sent on a nighttime patrol into no man’s land – that ominous extent of land between the two opposing trenches along the Western Front.
Vern admitted that he and his team were green troops, country boys on their first few days on the frontline, thousands of miles from home. In the dead of night, they were captured by a force of seasoned German soldiers.
He spent a year in a prisoner of war camp in Germany. Wide-eyed, my young relatives and I asked Vern about what it was like to be a prisoner. Vern said he was treated well by his captors but that food shortages throughout Germany meant the biscuits he ate each day were made of sawdust with a little bit of flour.
One of my relatives asked, “Did that make you mad, the biscuits?”
Vern replied, “No. Because the guards were eating the same sawdust biscuits, the civilians were eating sawdust biscuits. We were all starving. All of Germany was starving in 1918. That’s why they lost the war.”
To this day, Vern’s experience has had a major impact on my support for a strong military to defend our country and our constitution. But it also demonstrated that we cannot forget the important role production agriculture has in maintaining our national security. As the Germans were forced to realize during WWI, a strong and secure food supply is critical to the long term wellness of the country in times of peace and war.
Today I want to express my deepest gratitude to those brave young Americans of 1917 and 1918, whose efforts helped bring an end to one of the bloodiest conflicts in modern history. This great generation established a proud tradition of service that continues to this day. Now, with that generation passed, we thank the men and women who have served since then for their service and sacrifice to protect our freedoms and bring stability to the world.