HOUSTON, TX – Growing up in New York, we never went to school five days a week during the fall semester. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Columbus Day, Election Day, Veteran’s Day, Thanksgiving. I didn’t give much thought to the reasons or to Columbus, politicians, soldiers, and the Pilgrims. All I cared about was the freedom to play.
As an adult, my perspectives have evolved: cultural and religious diversity have enriched my life; Columbus’ back story is a little hinky; politicians are a lot hinky; the Pilgrims need to smile more; and soldiers – veterans – are my heroes.
There used to be parades, flags flying everywhere, people cheering, proud. What happened? Where is the public recognition? Okay, banks are closed and the post office suspends service for the day. Every now and then, a soldier is acknowledged with a medal – too often belatedly – and WWII veterans, their numbers dwindling, gather to honor each other and remember. There are local statues and veterans’ cemeteries, where families privately honor their own. Washington, DC is, properly, home to national monuments dedicated to those who served and sacrificed: the Civil War Monument; the U.S. Navy Memorial; Arlington National Cemetery, where 300,000 soldiers and veterans are buried; the Tomb of the Unknowns, the final resting place of unidentified remains of soldiers killed in World War I, World War II, and the Korean War, and “known only to God”; the iconic raising of the American flag by Marines on Iwo Jima; the National WWII Memorial, honoring the 16 million who served and the 400,000 who died; the Vietnam Memorial Wall, engraved with the names of 58,000, and the Vietnam Memorial Statue, three soldiers who stand for countless others; the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, remembering the 11,000 female medical personnel who served beside the soldiers. And, most recently, the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial, etching onto our national consciousness the everlasting cost of war and our perpetual debt to those who pay it daily.
But you have to plan a trip and fight the crowds to remember, learn, witness, and honor.
Unless you live in Houston. In 2009, Father Michael Lambakis, Proestamenos of the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral, instituted an annual dinner as a modest tribute to the veterans in our community. A veteran himself, Fr. Michael wanted to go beyond the prayer for the military inscribed in the Divine Liturgy to a direct expression of thanksgiving for the patriotism and courage of the veterans of WWII, Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq. Equally important to him is the example of service the veterans and their spouses set for the young people who help facilitate the dinners. Boy Scouts provide the color guard in the Martel Auditorium, where the icon of St. George, patron saint of soldiers, is framed by the flags of the various branches of the military. Goyans serve dinner as part of a project to give back to previous generations. It is not really surprising that the veterans keep giving to these young people as well – as living history books, they teach all of us lessons we never could have learned in school.
The dinner is on Veteran’s Day or the Sunday before. Besides a scrumptious meal, the veterans and their spouses enjoy an inspiring speech from a guest who is either a veteran or affiliated with the armed forces and veterans’ issues specifically. Speakers have included Brigadier General Michael P. Cokinos, recipient of several medals for gallantry and service during WWII, including the Silver Star and the Purple Heart; Lt. Col. Bill Gazis, Fr. Michael himself, and a representative from the Houston VA Hospital. This year, the guest speaker is from The Wounded Warrior Project.
Last year, the guest speaker was Metropolitan Isaiah. His Eminence was a corporal in the Marines from 1952-1960, serving as a radio operator in an artillery regiment. He sees what Fr. Lambakis is doing as a tradition of thankfulness and appreciation that should be replicated by other churches throughout the country to keep alive our love and respect for the United States. According to His Eminence, “The message I shared and continue to share is that we are grateful to God for blessing our nation with men and women who are dedicated to the preservation of our nation. Fr. Lambakis’ annual dinner is important, especially today, for two reasons: a) to express our appreciation and thanks to our veterans for their many sacrifices and to show that we have not forgotten them; b) to keep alive our respect and love for our country at a time when there is no sense of patriotism among many Americans who are more interested in themselves rather than to be thankful regarding where they live.”
The Annunciation veterans are grateful for the recognition and remembrance that these dinners bestow upon them, and we are grateful for their service. But the second element of the Metropolitan’s statement is equally important. One of the reasons we get to live in the greatest country in the world is because of the veterans. Unfortunately, we often forget that, and something bad has to happen to remind us. Remember September 10, 2001? How many flags hung from windows or flapped in the breeze off the roof of a passing car? How many on September 12th? How many today? We shouldn’t need a national holiday or a national tragedy to inspire patriotism.
Last year, I co-authored a book entitled Greeks in Houston. Chapter Five is dedicated to the war years. One picture we included had no background information other than the date: Tuesday, Nov. 4, 1947. Using a magnifying glass, I discerned Orthodox altar boys and identified the priest as Fr. Seraphim Haginas. I stared at that picture for a very long time, determined to write a caption that honored the five hearses slowly moving down Main Street. I pray that I did.