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Veterans tribute at Crystal City High

(From left) Steven Anton, Darby Downey and Ross Downey at Crystal City High School on Friday, Nov. 7, 2019. Photo by Anita Anton.

“It’s taken 49 years but I finally got my welcome home!” — Steven Anton

On Friday, students at Crystal City High School lined their hallways and broke out in continuous applause as military veterans and alumni from their school walked past the students on their way to the outdoor ceremony in front of the American flag.

The high school had invited all alumni who served in the military to a breakfast and ceremony to honor these returning veterans. Steven Anton was Class of 1966.

Both the choir and band performed beautifully our national anthem and the official songs for each branch of the military.

I walked arm in arm with my husband, Steven, in line with the other vets and their spouses as we passed the applauding students.

Tears formed in my eyes. It was impossible not to be affected as these heroes received their accolades. What a difference years and perceptions can make.

When Steven first arrived home in September 1970 after serving in Vietnam as a combat infantryman, he was met with jeers and slurs. He was actually spit on by young women on the street.

He packed his uniform away and never took it out until many years later when he served as honor guard at military funerals. Some of his friends actually burned their military clothes.

Steven and his colleagues were confused and ashamed to be treated in such a manner. He fought in a war he didn’t believe in because he was doing his duty to his country.

They sent him, so he served — with honor and distinction. He has a box full of awards and medals documenting his valor. But Steve could never speak of these horrible months and the events that took place, including the loss of so many lives.

Steven was drafted while attending college. His number was extremely low and he knew he would be going.

His dad, Elmer, had served five years in the armored tank division during World War II in Germany. Elmer’s division saw the worst of that war and was part of the military group which entered Hitler’s Berghof retreat and the extermination camp at Buchenwald.

Vietnam was an entirely different war — fought in jungles with the enemy blending in the background. Steven returned with injuries that are with him 50 years later.

Among the veterans attending the ceremony was Darby Downey, 101 years old, a World War II veteran. His son, Ross, a retired Air Force veteran, accompanied him.

Darby Downey spoke briefly to us about his experience. I watched his face, especially his eyes, as he looked back at memories too hard to express. I had seen that look in Steven’s eyes when he was asked the same question.

In Vietnam, the infantry knew that any moment could be their last. Steven believes that his faith sustained him.

"Every night I prayed to God to give me one more day," he said. After he made it back home, Steven was grateful yet confused. "Why me? Why did I make it back and not the other 60,000?"

Like all returning soldiers before him, Steven had to deal with the survival of making it through the war and surviving the life he came home to live.

Steven believes that God has a purpose for him. But it hasn’t been easy to listen and be open to God’s message. Many days, weeks and years have brought anxiety and anger, at himself, his family and God.

Steven thought about the years of struggle he experienced since making it back from Vietnam.

"I live each day, being thankful to God. I don’t always live the way I should, my brain gets in my way. But, he brings me back. I guess prayer does work in mysterious ways."

In today’s world, our country is in turmoil. We are still sending our soldiers to foreign countries, fighting wars that some believe we should not be a part of.

Military veterans are praised and reviled. We hold them up and tear them down. One consistent fact is still relevant — if you have not served, you cannot know.

The makeup of a man or woman who serves our country has great bearing on the service and actions they exhibit during that time. Faith can give them the strength to persevere.

Faith, honor and commitment.

Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Peter 2:16

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Anita Anton has a doctorate in educational studies from St. Louis University and lives in south St. Louis County, where she is a member of Mary, Mother of the Church parish.  She is a regular Faith Perspectives contributor on STLtoday.com/religion