As we remember Veterans Day, let me tell you about one of the veterans I know. He stormed a German machine gun nest, earning a Bronze Star when I was still a toddler. When I turned ten, he was commanding troops in Korea. When I was in high school, he was elected to the Mississippi Senate. When I was in my mid-twenties and just starting my family, he was elected to Congress. And when I was elected to Congress a short time later, this veteran became a role model and friend whom I still cherish.
I learned a lot from Sonny Montgomery, as did people throughout our nation. Thanks to Sonny’s service, we’re all the better. In fact, President Bush honored Sonny at the White House on November 9 with the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civil award which honors distinguished service to the country.
It’s fitting that we honor “Mr. Veteran” so near to Veterans Day. Sonny is a man who used his Congressional seat to make life better for his fellow vets and who enabled two million young Americans to get a college education through the historic Montgomery GI Bill.
I was honored to be at the White House to witness President Bush present Sonny with his medal. Standing alongside him were other Medal of Freedom recipients including Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Richard Myers, and even legendary men and women from the sports and entertainment fields like Andy Griffith, Paul Harvey, Carol Burnett, Jack Nicklaus and Aretha Franklin. It spoke volumes about the caliber of Sonny’s accomplishments, and it caused me to again reflect on Sonny’s service to others and to America – a hallmark of his generation for us to emulate today.
Born in Meridian in 1920, Sonny was destined to personify America’s “Greatest Generation,” World War II veterans who, as President Kennedy said in his inaugural address, were “tempered by war” at a very young age, then sent again to fight in Korea. This tempered, well-honed generation served and shaped modern America like no other before it, with a discipline, energy and example that really brought our nation into its own, making us the world’s most powerful military and economic power and, more importantly, its most visible beacon of freedom.
Like most members of this generation, Sonny excelled out of uniform, too. After World War II and before and after Korea, he did well in the insurance business. Then in 1956 he decided to once again serve his state and nation. He was elected that year to the Mississippi Legislature and served ten years with a perfect attendance record. Mind you, that was all back in the days before interstates when it was a much longer drive between Jackson and Meridian.
In 1966 Sonny won a seat in Congress where he would serve for the next 30 years, shuffling between Washington, D.C. and East Mississippi. One day he’d be at the White House talking to Presidents, the next visiting Mississippians in Quitman or Newton. When I ran my first statewide campaign for U.S. Senate in 1988, I’d see Sonny at local festivals, hailing most folks by their first names like an old friend. In fact, he was. There’s hardly a committee meeting, House vote, or Chamber of Commerce banquet back in Mississippi that he missed. He served 28 years on the House Veterans Affairs’ Committee, 14 of those years as chairman. To add to that, Sonny served 24 years on the Armed Services Committee. All the while, he never lost a vote on the House floor.
We shouldn’t forget that Sonny was elected at the height of the Vietnam War on a commitment to “bring the boys back with dignity.” Despite the vicious politics surrounding Vietnam, Sonny kept that commitment to our military. Throughout his long career, he always strived to give our men and women in uniform dignity, securing better equipment, better benefits and a higher standard of living while they were in uniform and after their service, too. He even made multiple trips to Vietnam to search for POWs and return the remains of servicemen to their families.
This Veterans Day it’s entirely appropriate for President Bush and all of us again to recognize Sonny’s service. But let’s also remember that veterans of Sonny’s generation and those of new generations are among us every day. Veterans don’t have to be confidantes of Presidents or even combat soldiers or Representatives like Sonny. They may be young and fresh back from the War on Terror or even at a stateside post. Indeed, the service of every man and woman in uniform takes sacrifice and must be respected, honored and always remembered with recurring praise. Our veterans, regardless of when, where, why or how long they served, deserve a hearty “thank you” from us. Who knows? Among them could very well be a young man or woman destined to serve our nation anew with the same high standards as Sonny’s service.