The veterans sitting in the comfortable common area at Channing House cupped their hands to their ears.
"Can you speak up? Some of us had our ears shot out in the war," one said.
Some are now frail, others are still robust, and they represented the breadth of some of the United State's most notable wars: Paul Carlson, Joe Graham, Herbert Hamerslough, Dewey Jacques, Carl Otto and Orin Zimmerman served in World War II; Merrill Newman served in Korea; and George Young served two tours of duty in Vietnam. Together, they have experienced nearly every aspect of war, from combat and injury, such as Hamerslough experienced, to writing the families of those killed in battle about their loved one's death, which was emotionally devastating, Graham said.
The collective scars and memories of past military service are slowly ebbing in Channing House, a downtown Palo Alto senior residence, as more veterans pass away. Six veterans have died in the past year or so; two women, Sarah Wolfe and Maxine MacDonald, both Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) during World War II, are living in skilled nursing, the men said.
But these remaining veterans have lessons to impart still. Ever selfless, they prefer to focus on the service of others rather than their own. The types of sacrifices they and their families made continue on today among military service persons and their families. But the impacts of these more recent wars aren't felt by most Americans, they said. The numbers of people in the armed services may be smaller -- only about one percent of the population is serving in the unconscripted services today -- but four percent of Americans are being touched by the wars in profound ways. They include parents, wives and husbands and children, the men said.
War is in many ways the same and in many ways different today. It's always been about political struggle, about one group wanting to dominate and another not wanting to be dominated; or one group wanting autonomy from another, Young said. But when these men were young, they were mostly unmarried. They didn't have kids to leave behind or wives who had to become the heads of their families. That's different today. Military families are much more prevalent.
In other wars, service men and women went away for the duration of the war. Now, National Guardsmen and others are deployed again and again, forcing them and their families to continuously have to readjust to military and civilian life.
The emotional toll is especially great on families. Children just get used to a parent being there and they disappear again. Adjustment, while easier for some, can be difficult for those without much of a support network, they said.
Young, who served in Vietnam in 1963-64 and 1972-73, recalled his first return home in 1964.
"I was on leave in downtown San Jose, and I went into a magazine store. I saw Life magazine there with a cover photo of the Vietnam War. The picture was with the body of a friend on the cover. His name tag was wiped out. That was a shock, to be in civilian life and seeing the pictures (of the war). He had died a month before that," Young said.
The young people who returned from World War II faced a peacetime world that acknowledged them as heroes, but the country had also changed significantly, they said. Before the war, they had faced the deprivations of the Great Depression.
"The Depression was awful. In our growing-up years, you could not get a job," Otto, a 13-year U.S. Navy veteran, said. "After the war, that was not a problem."
That was largely due to the GI Bill, the veterans said.
"It was the greatest piece of social legislation ever made," said Graham, a U.S. Army tank company commander in the European theater.
"The GI Bill changed American society and probably saved the country from a recession. We became a more educated society and we had different expectations," added Newman, who trained U.N. Partisan Forces for the Army in Korea.
The veterans said the country should learn from that successful policy. Veterans today are not returning heroes as they did during World War II; in fact, they are barely noticed. During World War II, "the country went to war and everybody was expected to go to war," Young said. "But 96 percent of American society is untouched and doesn't pay attention to what's going on (today)."
"Most people don't know anyone in the service," Newman said.
But the effects of war still mount for veterans of the Balkans wars and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and for their families. Although there are a number of GI Bills today, they aren't commensurate with World War II benefits, which is unfair, the men said.
"They get shot the same as we did," Graham said.
Young hopes the unsung heroes of wars will be remembered on Veterans Day -- the Cold Warriors and the doctors, many of whom live at Channing House, who continued to serve away from the battlefield and after the wars in Nuremberg and Japan and at military hospitals throughout the world.
"It takes more than soldiers; it takes families and the industry that supports the soldiers," he said.
On Veterans Day -- Wednesday, Nov. 11 -- at 10:15 a.m., Channing House will hold its annual ceremony for its veterans, with speakers reflecting on the Great War (World War I) and the history of Veterans Day. Graham will speak on "A touch of combat," and there will be readings honoring the two WAVES, Wolfe and MacDonald. Hamerslough will open and close the ceremony.