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Don't let traditions become a casualty

By ELIJAH GOSIER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 19, 2002


At the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, Nancy Crabtree was alone.

At the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, Nancy Crabtree was alone.

She made a fine show of concealing her disappointment, but the mask was transparent. This was, after all, the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month, a time of great reverence for the men and women who fought this nation's wars.

It was the appointed time for soldiers to remember the comrades who fought beside them and snap a salute to those who didn't survive. It was the day and the time the nation has set aside to say it recognizes the hardships and triumphs of the people in uniform and to thank them for wearing it.

But at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month, Crabtree heard no bugler blowing taps, saw no color guard raising the flag, no soldiers reaching across generations to shake each other's hands. In one of the nation's oldest gathering places for veterans, the only sights and sounds were made by Crabtree getting the lounge ready for a normal day of business.

For the first time in anyone's memory, the South's oldest VFW (the second-oldest in the nation), did nothing special for Veterans Day.

Crabtree offered several explanations: There were too many other celebrations going on; members were involved in too many other organizations; a ceremony a week earlier to dedicate a new library and museum had taken advantage of the presence of some dignitaries and doubled as a salute to veterans.

Crabtree's attempt was valiant, but the explanations didn't work for her, or for the audience of one to whom she offered them.

Perhaps the VFW's decision not to observe Veterans Day was an early signal that the day such organizations have fretted about has already arrived. Veterans groups have long worried that as time decimated the ranks of members from the World Wars and the Korean conflict, their rolls would dwindle. Eligible service members from the Vietnam War and even more notably from more recent conflicts are not joining the organizations in the same numbers.

Crabtree's Post 39, for example, saw its membership drop to 176 from 227 the previous year, according to statistics from the organization's national headquarters. Crabtree said part of that decrease resulted from an accounting of life members whose deaths had not been reported.

But the decrease was experienced similarly by other posts in the district. Statewide, membership declined by nearly 10,000 from last year. Confounding the trend, Florida's veteran population increased by more than 150,000 in the last decade.

The reason that increase has not folded itself into the rolls of veterans organizations is not just a signal that those groups need to undertake drastic self-promotion to avoid fading away. It is perhaps more an indication of something a little deeper that's hard for anyone to consider: Respect for military service isn't what it used to be -- mainly because we are not who we used to be.

The military institutionally cherishes tradition. Soldiers still kick their day off to the sound of a bugle playing reveille, the way they did 100 years ago. The same solemn tones of retreat still mark the day's end, just as they did for the doughboys.

So what if the sounds modern soldiers hear are from a CD blasted over a public address system? So what if it's not coming from a bugler standing at the flagpole?

Slippage, that's what.

The CD and loudspeakers sacrifice a bit of the solemnity. Efficiency is gained, granted, but for an institution that thrives on reverence for tradition, it can be fairly asked if the trade is an even one.

The military, whose mystique began crumbling during the war in Vietnam, can ill afford any more slippage. An organization built on tradition and unquestioning obedience to orders -- orders, not requests -- is already anachronistic in a society that's on a first name basis with its boss and delights in the slaughter of sacred cows.

But the military uniquely profits from its traditions and the dictatorial authority it grants to its leaders. A battlefield, the place soldiers train to work, does not reward consensus leadership. Similarly, military drills and ceremonies that enthrall civilian audiences with their precision and flash are at their core simply efficient ways to enhance unity and move large numbers of people in an orderly manner.

As the society around it becomes more irreverent, it behooves veterans and service members to uphold and strengthen the traditions, which, along with the mission the people in the armed forces perform, are the source of the mystique the military has enjoyed.

Although some veterans reveled in the esteem they, along with firefighters and police officers, gained following the Sept. 11 attacks, the heat-of-battle fervor has since subsided. Now, more than ever, those who value those traditions most need to keep them alive.

Perhaps next year, at the 11th hour of the 11th day in the 11th month, when Crabtree prepares for business at Post 39, the lure of bigger, better observances somewhere else won't be enough to pull members away from Post 39. Maybe members won't be too busy with other activities and organizations. Maybe no other dedication or anniversary will fall close enough that it can double up with Veterans Day.

Then, perhaps Crabtree won't have to spend the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month alone again.

-- To reach Elijah Gosier, call (727) 893-8650 or e-mail gosier@sptimes.com.

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