Like many of my contemporaries, I left high school straight for the military. It was during World War II, late in 1944. There was optimism about a positive outcome, but the Battle of the Bulge had just been fought—a setback that left America wondering how long the war could go on in Europe, and in the Pacific.
Despite this, we went forward with a strong, continuing sense of duty and of devotion to our nation, to the men and women fighting, and to the folks back home who were sacrificing for the war effort with food and gas rationing.
The Greatest Generation, Tom Brokaw’s fine book, tells an accurate story. His words: “These men and women came of age in the Great Depression, when economic despair hovered over the land like a plague. They had watched their parents lose their businesses, their farms, their jobs, their hopes. They had learned to accept a future that played out one day at time. Then, just as there was a glimmer of economic recovery, war exploded across Europe and Asia … they gave up their place on the assembly lines in Detroit and in the ranks of Wall Street, they quit school or went from cap and gown directly into uniform.”
I was one of those men, 17 years of age when I joined the Navy. And four years after World War II, I re-enlisted and became a Marine Corps officer serving in Korea during that war from 1951-52. I later was secretary of the Navy during the Vietnam War. The citizens of Virginia in 1978 sent me to represent them in the U.S. Senate for three decades, an honor and privilege that will humble me all my remaining life.
I cite my modest service only to emphasize how central those two events—the Great Depression and World War II—were to forming my generation, to shaping the world we lived in, and in providing the lessons we learned to carry us through life. All of us, no matter our age, are shaped by the events of our time. I say this, knowing today the hardships and sacrifices continuing to be made by our men and women in uniform.
The lessons from my generation remain the same: Discipline. Responsibility. Humility. Loyalty.
I remain a creature of the U.S. Senate; let me explain what I mean. When I began serving in 1979, three-quarters of my colleagues were military veterans. We had political disagreements and often fought on the Senate floor, our battlefield. But at day’s end, we shared a drink, talked as friendly rivals and even friends, and we found common cause, solving problems and serving the American public.
Our shared respect for each other was largely forged from our military experience. We had learned to respect and have confidence in the persons serving with us, knowing that our very lives depended on each other. That was a very strong bond.
But we all are capable of nurturing within ourselves the self-discipline, sense of responsibility, desire for humility, and loyalty to one another that leads to finding a common good. I cannot help but think that all of us today have lived through the second greatest economic crisis this nation has faced since I was a child. And we continue to combat evil forces in this world that wish to kill and destroy and can shake us to our very roots. These times are shaping who we are today and the hardships—and lessons—from these events are not all that different than they were nearly a century ago. I can only hope that we all learn from these times, that we learn that sacrifice can be good for us, that discipline is required of us, that humility is necessary for us, and that loyalty must guide us.
We must remember that we are more alike than different, that how we act toward one another is as important as anything else we aspire to do.
If we do, there is no reason why any generation cannot be called the greatest.