*Note: This essay was published in the Colorado Springs Gazette print edition on April 3, 2020. An image of the column is included below, as well as the text of the essay.
The Greatest Generation saved the world. Now it’s our turn to save them.
While fascism wreaked havoc across the globe during World War II, today’s novel coronavirus (“Covid-19”) has sickened nearly one million and killed over 40,000 as of this writing. Estimates suggest the United States may suffer 100,000 to 200,000 deaths, with peak terribleness to come in mid-April.
This enemy of all mankind is as ruthless as any enemy army, and its favorite target is the most aged among us. That demographic—in their 90s now—happens to be the cohort of Americans that fought in World War II, famously nicknamed the “Greatest Generation” by journalist Tom Brokaw in 1998. While some still quibble with that term, what’s beyond dispute is this generation truly did something great that benefitted us all.
Just last month, before the crisis, we lost Donald Stratton of Colorado Springs at age 97. Stratton was one of the last survivors of the USS Arizona, the attack on Pearl Harbor. He sustained burns to over 70 percent of his body. Forced to discharge in 1942, he re-enlisted to fight again in 1944.
While I never knew Mr. Stratton, others are much more intimately familiar. My grandparents served in India and across the Pacific. I still hold fast to their standard-issue GI dog tags that saw frontline service. Their stories are my stories, and in part they’ve steered my family on to another generation of service.
They’re more than heroes. They’re our family. Our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents.
Covid-19 is a real threat to wipe out what’s left of the Greatest Generation. It may yet do what the Nazis or Imperial Japanese couldn’t. Of those 16 million Americans that served in uniform during World War II, just under 400,000 remain. Before Covid-19, we were losing about 300 each day.
Covid-19 will take them at a much higher rate. And if this virus stretches longer than a few months we’ll lose too many of their lives and stories.
For the Greatest Generation, the math of exponential spread is brutal, but so is the reality of medical prioritization. Nobody would question the logic of choosing who gets limited care resources based on maximizing “life-years,” as many doctors around the world have had to implement.
Of course we should fight this infectious disease to save everyone we can. But there’s a special case to be made to protect those among us that suffered the Great Depression as children and won the world’s most important war as young men and women.
As a military officer that’s spent a life in uniform, if I had one wish in facing Covid-19, it’s that I could cash-in every “Thank you for your service” I’ve ever received right now. I’d go back to those complementary moments in time and tell the sentiment’s sender, “Someday, a virus will come. Our military won’t be able to stop it, but if we all do our part—we all do what we can to halt its spread—we’ll give our medical community and first responders’ the time they need to save as many lives as possible.”
Doing your part doesn’t include loading up on TP and ammo. It’s not spreading panicky misinformation. It’s really simple. It’s listening to authoritative sources like our government, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and those outlets looking to disseminate best practices. They can provide orders and clarity while advancing against our common enemy.
And if you’re looking for words that steel the soul, look to the generals that led the Greatest Generation. Gen. George S. Patton in particular, while far from universally loved, and far from perfect, his famed speech to the Third Army still stirs feelings from which we can draw on today.
Patton reminded his troops that everyone is afraid in their “first action” yet still plays a “vital role.” “Don’t ever think that your job is unimportant. What if every truck driver decided that he didn’t like the whine of shells” and quit?
The same holds true today, for our shelf-stockers, store clerks, truck drivers, delivery people, US Postal Service professionals, and everyone who has anything to do with our medical system. The rest of us can see that your work’s become an act of bravery Patton himself would’ve commended. We need you. We thank you.
Nobody gets to choose their generation’s crisis. It’s all bad-luck-of-the-draw, an awful lottery. When it was their turn, they made plenty of mistakes, but the Greatest Generation saved the world as we know it.
Now it’s our turn to do what we can to save what’s left of the Greatest Generation.