No serviceman today will diminish the service, sacrifice, or achievements of our World War II heroes. After all, they were our fathers, uncles, brothers, or maybe even our grandfathers. What they accomplished in Defending America, under the most difficult of circumstances between December 1941 through September 1945, should cause every one of us to stand in honor of their presence. They are entitled to our deepest respect.
And yet, to claim that one generation of American warrior is “greater” than any other is grossly inaccurate. I have never heard a veteran of World War II proclaim themselves as such. The phrase, as one might expect, originated with a journalist by the name of Tom Brokaw who used that phrase in the title of his book. It was later borrowed by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks in several films recreating events in World War II. Neither Brokaw, Spielberg, nor Hanks ever served their country in uniform —so I suspect they wouldn’t have any first-hand knowledge about combat, or what actually defines a “greatest” generation.
Tens of thousands of Americans served in the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. Some of these men and women also lived during the Great Depression, experiencing tough times in the 1930s and 1940s. It is certainly true that our Iraqi and Afghan war veterans grew up at a different time, but these men and women stepped up to serve; some gave all they had to give. Most of our latest greatest volunteered for military service; all of them had to leave behind a loved one to worry about them over many months. Do they not also count as among America’s greatest generation(s)?
In World War II, ten million Americans were conscripted into military service; another 3 million were volunteers. Of these, 407,316 US servicemen gave up their lives. An additional 671,846 received serious wounds. In the Korean War, the United States drafted 1.5 million men, with a much smaller number volunteering to fight. In total, 326,823 Americans served in Korea; of these, 33,651 Americans laid down their lives. In Vietnam, 2.2 million Americans were forced to serve; only a quarter of these people actually served in Vietnam. We lost 58,318 Americans in Vietnam; an additional 303,656 received combat wounds.
Do the Americans who served in the Korean and Vietnam wars deserve as much respect as those who served in World War II —particularly since neither of these conflicts received the popular support of the American people?
Of course, they do …
Yet, today, people who never once placed themselves in harm’s way will argue that the modern battlefield is far less demanding than those of earlier wars. I suspect that our Iraqi and Afghan War veterans will disagree. To begin with, while there does continue to be a draft registration, today’s military is an all-volunteer force. These are America’s true warrior class citizens. There is as much (or more) courage displayed on the battlefields of today as in our previous three conflicts. What does stand out is that veterans of the Iraq and Afghan wars received fewer combat awards than those in previous eras. There are several reasons for this, but none of them related to any lack of courage among our modern-day warriors.
For those who think that the Iraq and Afghan Wars were “long distance” engagements, think again. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates once said, “Our enemy generally use weapons at a distance from us, so there’s less hand-to-hand or in-close combat than there has been in previous years.” Mr. Gates probably never met Corporal Clifford Wooldridge, United States Marine Corps.
On 17 June 2010, Cpl. Wooldridge was riding in a convoy when the vehicles came under heavy enemy fire from a group of Taliban fighters in Helmand Province , in Afghanistan. The story of Wooldridge’s heroism is told in the following award presentation:
Navy Cross Citation:
The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Cross to Corporal Clifford M. Wooldridge, United States Marine Corps, for extraordinary heroism while serving as Vehicle Commander, Combined Anti-Armor Platoon White, Weapons Company, Third Battalion, Seventh Marines, Regimental Combat Team 2, FIRST Marine Division (Forward), I Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward) Afghanistan, on 18 June 2010 in support of Operation ENDURING FREEDOM. When their mounted patrol came under intense enemy fire, Corporal Wooldridge and his squad dismounted and maneuvered on the suspected enemy location. Spotting a group of fifteen enemy fighters preparing an ambush, Corporal Wooldridge led one of his fire teams across open ground to flank the enemy, killing or wounding at least eight and forcing the rest to scatter. As he held security alone to cover his fire team’s withdrawal, he heard voices from behind an adjacent wall. Boldly rushing around the corner, he came face-to-face with two enemy fighters at close range, killing both of them with his M-249 Squad Automatic Weapon. As he crouched back behind the wall to reload, he saw the barrel of an enemy machine gun appear from around the wall. Without hesitation, he dropped his empty weapon and seized the machine gun barrel. He overwhelmed the enemy fighter in hand-to-hand combat, killing him with several blows to the head with the enemy’s own machine gun. His audacious and fearless actions thwarted the enemy attack on his platoon. By his bold and decisive leadership, undaunted courage under fire, and total dedication to duty, Corporal Wooldridge reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and of the United States Naval Service.
 Also known as “Marine-istan.”