The next greatest generation?

“A common lament of the World War II generation is the absence today of personal responsibility,” Tom Brokaw once wrote. I believe this quote from Brokaw’s book, The Greatest Generation, could now be amended given the times we’re in. The words “praise” and “presence ” would replace the words “lament” and  “absence”. I believe when we as a nation look back on all we’ve been through with this pandemic, we will see that people from all walks of life showed up in support of one another and took responsibility.

Much has been written about the heroism witnessed during World War II. I have a deep admiration for those who served yesterday and are serving our country today. Our veterans will always be superheroes in my mind. Brokaw’s book reminded me of the importance many on the frontlines and behind played in this nation’s heroic struggle both abroad and at home.

In light of these past few months, with spikes of infections being realized in certain parts of the country­, people continue to do incredible things. All have one common denominator: people are placing themselves in harms way to save lives. It’s happening right now as you read this essay. It is a war— us versus it— and people right now are leaving for work to do battle with the enemy.

Could we be witnessing the next in line to garner the title “greatest generation”? And is there an ember within each of us, a tiny sliver of what soldiers call “metal” that burns hot when it’s time to rise, to answer that call, to hold a brother when the light fades or a phone to a loved one’s ear so others can say goodbye? I would like to think we all have within us the ability to show up.

Over its six-year span, WWII saw over 400,000 U.S. soldiers and civilians die, and it is estimated 70 to 85 million people perished, 3% of the 1940 world population.  Though the war never touched U.S. soil, many people at home did whatever they could to help in the effort to end Germany’s terror and avenge Japan’s onslaught. Whether it was working an extra shift, going without food and other necessities, volunteering, organizing, collecting — you name it — people showed up to help. And it is happening right now.

With more than 43 million confirmed cases of coronavirus worldwide — 8.7 million in the U.S. — and 1.1 million deaths — 226,000 U.S. deaths — in just over an eight- month time span, healthcare workers, medical support staff and emergency responders are still showing up to fulfill their commitment just as the soldiers did in WWII.

Those of the greatest generation were not only the foot soldiers, they were everyday people, the citizenry who supported the cause and sacrificed as best they could to do their part. There were no oaths taken or documents to be signed, just an unwavering belief that one person can make a difference.

In many parts of the country the endurance of our healthcare system is being stretched to its limit. The lack of supplies and equipment is an obstacle faced daily, like those shortages of ammunition, battle gear and money during WWII. And still, people push through and show up.

The first responders are the first to arrive and access the situation. They make life and death decisions — not easy on a normal day — and wrestle with the uncertainty of what tomorrow might bring.

Sharon McCutcheon, Unsplash photo

Governments here and abroad wrestle with what seems impossible, realizing the system —imperfect as it is — needs to step up, needs to show up and lead right now. Some will lead the fight, some will falter, but others will be there to take their place and continue on.

People are showing up. From the grocery clerks and shelf stockers, to the warehouse personnel fulfilling orders of foodstuffs and other essentials; the school teachers committing time to students any way they can; people in their homes sewing protective masks; to others making do with less so others may have something; and people staying distant and people staying home; people are helping in any way they can.

Alexandra Koch, Pixaby photo

When we return to what will be our “new” normal, I hope the historical record will show the totality of the effort made to defeat this enemy the way it did years after the end of WWII. And I hope we, the descendants of the greatest generation, recognize the effort made by this generation while not diminishing either’s commitment to the preservation of life.

If we do forget, we allow the shadow of this struggle to only grow, taint who we are as a country and eventually blot out the sun. We cannot let that happen. In remembering history, both good and bad, we keep the lamp lit for those who follow to light their path forward and perhaps save lives.

Sergei Akulich, Pixaby photo

I believe we will write on the page that a generation of people gutted it out day after day, strived to do their job in saving lives and provide essential services to the rest of us, no matter the risk to themselves. They did this so we as a nation could defeat the enemy, learn from our mistakes and, when it was at its worst, still say that we showed up.

RJ Heller

About RJ Heller

Having arrived here from Pennsylvania over four years ago, there has been plenty to learn and even more to observe. This place is different, but I mean that in a good way. Born and raised in Pennsylvania, I am a college graduate with a teaching degree, a business founder and seller, and a father of two children with my wife Stephanie; life has been full and somewhat adventurous, but finding Maine remains a high watermark in my life.