The Greatest Generation
I enjoy volunteering. One of the most meaningful things I’ve done is placing flags on the graves of veterans. My family has a tradition of military service going back to the Civil War. Although placing flags at the National Cemetery gets a lot of recognition, there are smaller projects that may not hit the national news or even the front page of the local paper. I was invited recently to join one of those projects and I have to say it was a great experience.
What makes this event different is that it is significantly smaller and allows youth to interact with veterans directly. The morning starts with the veterans providing breakfast to nearly 300 youth volunteers who experience first-hand the concept of servant leadership. There’s nothing quite like sharing bagels with a WWII veteran and watching young people realize that war isn’t something from their history books or Wikipedia. After breakfast and a brief religious service, the young people (many who aren’t from the same faith tradition as those they’re serving) fan out across nearly a dozen religious cemeteries.
Over the last several years, volunteers (some as old as 97) have combed through cemetery records and identified veterans’ graves, adding a flag holder with a medallion next to each grave marker. In deference to the sacrifice of the veterans, volunteers approach the graves with some ceremony. The flag is placed and saluted and a brief statement of thanks is recited which includes the name of the veteran being recognized. It’s more than just adding the flags, it’s taking the time to speak directly to the person whose service allowed us the freedom we enjoy.
The majority of the veterans we honored were from WWII – often called The Greatest Generation. As we spoke the names it was hard not to wonder who they really were – whether they had children, what they liked to do in their free time, and how they came to rest in these small suburban cemeteries. This generation served their country not for fame or recognition, but because it was the right thing to do. Those who made it home from the war spent the rest of their lives continuing to do the right thing – raising families, taking care of their elders, and supporting their community.
They didn’t have the Internet, smart phones, or billions of dollars of technology at hand. The biggest technology revolution for many of them was getting telephone service that didn’t involve a party line, and maybe a black and white television. Their solutions for many problems revolved around hard work, sacrifice, and sheer determination. I was grateful to spend the morning communing with them and watching the spirit of service be passed to the next generation.
The peaceful morning was in sharp contrast to the rest of my day, which was spent in a busy urban emergency department. Except for a handful of octogenarians, most of my patients were under age 50. Many of them presented with problems at least partly related to our dependence on labor-saving devices and the quest for convenience – obesity, computer-induced repetitive motion injury, diabetes, high blood pressure.
More than half presented strictly because they wanted the technology of the hospital to convince them they were OK. These patients ranged from the woman who refused to allow a co-worker to remove a bee stinger “because she didn’t have any medical training” to a teenager who refused to believe her two negative home pregnancy tests, demanding a blood test to convince her boyfriend she was indeed pregnant. Nearly every one of them had an iPhone and several were surfing the Internet during the interview or exam, despite requests to stop. A couple of patients argued with me about their treatment, citing Internet information they found while in the waiting room.
Several demanded CT or MRI scans for simple sports-injuries despite having no ability to pay for such a test even if it was indicated, which it wasn’t. Guess what? If you run down a steep hill wearing flip flops, you will fall and sprain your ankle. The Ottawa Ankle Rules say you don’t even need an x-ray, let alone a scan. You need an Ace wrap, some ice, and a pair of real shoes.
It was one of the rougher shifts I’ve worked. I’m sure the contrast between people who want technology to solve all their problems effortlessly and those who were willing to give their lives simply for the concept of a world free of tyranny had something to do with it. I’ve been in informatics for nearly a decade and have seen the wonders that big data can do. I’m excited by the promise of personalized medicine and genomics, but I understand that it all comes at a price. Looking at global economics, it is likely more than any of us can afford. We’re mortgaging our future while we overlook the basic lessons of the past.
Technology isn’t the solution – it’s merely a tool. We have to learn how to use it wisely and at the same time how to temper our addiction to it. I challenge every reader to consider spending a day off the grid. If you can’t spare a day, consider an hour. Go volunteer. Go do something simply to show caring to someone else. Or just go lay on the grass and see that there is a world beyond the screens and clicks. And while you’re at it, say thank you to those who gave all.