Today we think of those who serve to keep us safe. Past, present, and most likely far into the future. Conflict, operation, outright war…these events are part of our collective memory and those who fought their way through them are the strengthening threads that run, often unnoticed, throughout our daily lives. The participants have been revered, honored, and sadly sometimes vilified.
I’ve been fortunate enough to know several veterans of foreign wars. Young and old alike they share that enigmatic stare that seems to look back, to the future, and deep inside simultaneously. They hate what they had to do, yet are happy to have served…and survived. They are all heroes, with or without the visible medals that mark them as such.
There is another group that I’ll call the shadow veterans. In modern times they are the families of active duty soldiers. The glue that holds the heart in place, whatever may come. In the past these shadow veterans were joined by circumstances at home that changed the fabric of reality and demanded more than love, support, and tears.
Ordinary citizens who were never drafted except by their sense of duty. I’m not sure how widely spread awareness is today of the women who risked their lives during World War II right here at home. Sometimes they’re lumped into the larger, more familiar term Rosie the Riveter. I don’t know if there was an official term or even admiring nickname for these brave women.
I do know more about them than most. I grew up in an area with a munitions plant, and heard the words “I (or She) worked at the arsenal.” my entire life. Long before I was born, as World War II raged across Europe, many farm boys and their entire healthy male family marched onto troop ships and set sail for the front lines. And many, many of the women they left behind quietly went to work assembling the munitions that made the technology of World War II combat possible.
The danger was great, the risk high, and the courage phenomenal. They worked in what amounted to a giant bomb on a daily basis, knowing full well that every one of those days was a deadly accident waiting to happen. Why would they risk their lives like that? I’m sure any extra money was some part of the motivation in times of rationing and scarcity, but the refrain I heard from reminiscing family, friends, and neighbor ladies was invariably “To help our boys”. Danger and risk of life was never mentioned, unless they were pressed for an answer on why they did it. “But weren’t you scared?” “Of course I was, but it had to be done.” “Did you think about what those bombs would do?” “Of course. But I tried not to. It was hard…but it had to be done” That old phrase from the movies never rang more true.
For the boys.
Those ladies forged lifelong friendships. Working side by side in trenches made not of mud and blood, but of metal and TNT. They went on to be mothers, grandmothers, teachers, doctors, and the quiet elderly neighbors who smile knowingly at The History Channel and could recite the precise millimeter measurements of specific antique shells…if only someone was interested and knew to ask. Those sweet elderly faces, lined with wrinkles and a hint of steel.
Sometimes even the children of such great women say the words, “Oh, yeah, she worked at the arsenal.”, without ever having given real thought to what they meant. They don’t realize how proud they should be of these quiet heroes.
So, today, I’m reminded and I’m proud. They did it for the boys. The boys we hold in remembrance today, and hopefully throughout the year. Those boys who became some of the veterans we revere, and the girls who are veterans as well. Largely unknown and unsung, but heroic all the more for it.