What did you do in the war?

“What did you do during the war, daddy?”

If you’re a baby boomer, you grew up hearing that question asked of our fathers and friend’s fathers. Everyone did something during World War II.

My dad joked that he didn’t do much of anything, that he was based in England, and it wasn’t until he died years ago that we found a diary in which he occasionally mentioned the condition of men in the field hospital where he worked. They were the the bomber crews who flew suicide missions over Europe.

I often wonder if anyone in the next generation will learn about the war in Iraq and the one in Afghanistan in a history class, only to run home and ask daddy and mommy, “what did you do during the war?” and whether there might be some shame about the answer.

Peter Sagal, the host of “Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me” on NPR, references this in a piece he’s written on his blog today about a visit to Walter Reed Hospital on Saturday.

While “The Good Soldiers” is a superb work of reporting and non-fiction writing, what really struck me – more than the heartbreaking stories of soldiers working, suffering and dying, and then trying to adjust to life afterwards – was the dates. The regiment that Finkel followed to Iraq was sent there as part of the “surge,” and stayed there from April 2007 to July 2008. I don’t know about you, but I remember those years really well. I published my first book, I travelled all over the country with my show, including to New York City to accept a Peabody Award, I attended a lot of fun parties, I shared a lot of good times with my wife and kids. I had a grand time. And all during that period, I can’t say I spared more than a passing thought for the men sent into the meat grinder of the Iraq War. As Finkel notes, we were told the surge worked. We were told violence was down. And it was. Fewer Americans died during those months than in the terrible days of 2003 and 2004. (For a gripping account of the early days of the war, see Martha Raddatz’ “The Long Road Home.”) But some did die, and more were gravely wounded, and I wasn’t paying attention. Reading Finkel’s book, I felt some shame about that, and some regret, and conceived a wild notion to take advantage of an upcoming trip to DC to try to rectify that error.

When we salute veterans for their service now, we do so usually at a sporting event. We fly some planes over, we stretch out a big American flag, we stand and applaud while a vet gets a basketball at half court.

It’s all so noble and, in a way, glamorous, and self-serving. We feel better about having shown our concern and respect. Good for us. But we don’t see Walter Reed.

The first soldier was in bed, surrounded by six members of his family, including his fiance, who was slumped over asleep. His left foot was missing, and he was in obvious pain, and also obviously in a fog of painkilling drugs. I chatted with his family, and heard about his injury – an IED in Afghanistan. My memory of this first visit was foggy, because I was slowly realizing something that for the life of me I had not anticipated: the men I would be meeting were not in rehab, or in recovery. These were not the guys I had read about in magazine features, gamely learning to walk on prostheses or deal with TBI,, months after their injury. These were guys who had just been gravely hurt, weeks or in some cases days before. They were sitting with family members who – also just weeks or days before – had gotten a call from the Army or Marines saying, “Your son has been wounded in battle,” and had with hearts pounding and tears streaming thrown things into a bag and gotten on a plane for Germany or Washington. These wounds were fresh and raw, in every sense.

I will not, or can’t give you details of every visit I made that morning, even a day after. I sat by bedsides and, as Trudeau advised, asked them what happened, and heard their stories. As I listened, I tried to focus, and control my own feelings of horror and dismay, and my growing urge to walk out of the room and tell the Sergeant, patiently waiting outside, that I could take no more and needed to leave now. (The sergeant told me later that this does happen.)

Sagal didn’t meet Jason Edens of Franklin, Tennessee. His family took him off life support at Walter Reed on Friday, two weeks after he was shot in the head while on patrol in Afghanistan.

“I thought originally he made the wrong decision, but after he went to Basic Training and came out and graduated, I saw that the Army made him a man,” said his father, Jim Edens.

At the height of the war, my youngest son joined the Navy. He’s a paramedic and noted that he was told many Marines die trying to protect the Navy corpsman. That was what he’d end up being — a Navy corpsman. Some months later, just before he was to leave, he decided the Navy wasn’t a great idea afterall, and the recruiter, upon learning this, told him if he didn’t continue into the Navy, his family would never be proud of him.

Every time I read a story about Walter Reed, I wonder how many of the people there were told the same thing.

We have our own struggles making sense of wars. So does Germany, which is struggling with how to welcome German forces back from Afghanistan. “In Germany, we are not proud of our veterans,” Roderich Kiesewetter, the head of the Association of Reservists of the German Military Reserve Association and a member of Parliament for the ruling Christian Democrats, tells the Washington Post today.

“If you look at the U.S. guys, you look at the day they return from Afghanistan or Iraq. In Germany, there’s no one who is greeting them at the airport. There’s no comparison,” said Andreas Timmermann-Levanas, the head of the Association of German Veterans, who served in Bosnia and Afghanistan and has pushed for a veterans day.

On Saturday evening, I attended the annual “gala” fundraiser for the Minnesota chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. During a few speeches, I heard a reference I hadn’t heard in several previous years — the needs of veterans. On a table nearby, DVDs offered advice on services for returning veterans.

These wars aren’t really going to end for more than a generation. There’s still time to come up with a good answer to the question.