My zayda, citizen soldier

The man with the really big smile on his face in this photo is my zayda. Why he felt the need to tag himself with a red pen, I’ll never know. But I do know that my zayda was, for a time, a citizen soldier.

Like millions of men and women, Joe Stern answered his country’s call during World War II. He had language skills that would’ve been useful in Europe, so the army sent him to the Pacific. He had a wry sense of humor, which may explain the smile during an incredibly difficult couple of years of island hopping, as well as the fact that he had a knack for making friends who came from all walks of life back home.

Officially, sergeant Stern was in charge of a motor pool unit that was responsible for keeping the army’s trucks and jeeps running. In truth, zayda wasn’t so hot with the mechanical stuff (when my father joined the family, zayda put him in charge of changing lightbulbs and other “technical” stuff). But zayda was a damn good photographer. His personal photos, the ones he was able to preserve from the heat and humidity of the jungle, are among my most cherished possessions. The other photos he worked with, the ones we’ll never see, were part of his real job, which had something to do with military intelligence, and which he never talked about, even after the war.

Zayda was proud of his military service, and we are all proud of him. But in honoring my zayda on Veteran’s Day, I’d be remiss if I didn’t share something about the history of this day. My zayda, after all, was a student of history and he passed that passion on to me. So here it goes, zayda.

Veteran’s Day used be known as Armistice Day. We mark the occasion on November 11, which was the official end of hostilities on the Western front during World War I. That war, of course, wasn’t called World War I at the time because nobody thought there would be a second one. In fact, one name for the conflict that killed tens of millions of people was The War To End All Wars. Obviously, that name turned out to be wrong and it ended up becoming a footnote to history.

That brings me back to zayda. He was born three years before World War I. When he shipped off to the Pacific, he was 32 years old. He left family, friends, and a career behind. He put his life on hold because it was the right thing to do. But the defining aspect of Joe Stern’s life certainly wasn’t his contribution to making war; it was his commitment to living in peace.

I love our veterans. I thank them for their service. And one of these days, I hope we figure out a way to reward them with peace and the opportunity to live for their country. We owe them that, and a whole lot more.

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