For most of us the lists of those who have died in the most recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are simply names. It’s far too easy to hear the litany, feel a moment of sadness, and then continue with our lives. They are not usually people that we know which makes them more symbolic to us than concrete. For their families and friends memories of them will live forever. These were real people just like you and me. They might have been one of our brothers or sisters, mothers or fathers, sons or daughters. Throughout the history of our country courageous individuals have joined the military, sometimes because they were drafted and often because they volunteered. All of them understood the dangers but always believed that they would one day come home. Far too many did so in flag draped coffins, casualties of the conflicts in which they fought.
My mother was once engaged to a strikingly handsome young man who joined the fight in World War II full of optimism and patriotism. He wrote to my mom often and the two of them made plans for the future. Their life together was shattered when he was killed on Saipan. My mom never forgot him. Even when she was in her eighties she would speak of his courage and of the desolation that she felt after his death. She told stories of grieving for what felt like an eternity along with his friends who had loved him just as she had. She tried to imagine what it must have been like for his family and asserted that no mother should ever have to endure such an experience. Unfortunately thousands have done just that over the course of our nation’s history. War is not a glorious experience. It is indeed hell but there are times when young warriors must don their bravery and fight for what they believe to be right. They do it for the rest of us even when we show little respect or appreciation for their efforts.
Of late it is fashionable to question whether or not certain conflicts should ever have taken place. I suppose that it is our right to consider such things but I also believe that we will never know those answers for certain. Things are what they are. We can only conjecture what the world would have been like if the kings and potentates of European countries had not chosen to start the first World War. It’s easy to note that perhaps if we had stopped Adolf Hitler when he first attempted to invade Czechoslovakia the world may have avoided the atrocities of the second World War. Vietnam in hindsight appears to have been misguided but had we defeated the north Vietnamese and established a strong democracy in that country we might be thinking differently. Presently the “what would you do if you knew what you now know?” questions are circulating among political candidates. The truth is that we can’t live in the world of “might have beens.” History is what it is and all we can do is fix whatever is broken and move on.
Caught in the middle of such fruitless arguments are our soldiers. The men and women who now volunteer to be the line of protection between us and our enemies. They possess a courage that is beyond anything that I may imagine and yet we all too often criticize them in quite insulting ways. There are those who suggest that they join the military only because they are unable to do anything else. Some would have us believe that they are barbarous and cruel. Fortunately the vast majority understands that they are in fact quite special. Their willingness to serve our nation is a great sacrifice and particularly on days like Memorial Day it is incumbent upon all of us to honor them and to remember those among them who have fallen or bear terrible wounds. They are the real heroes of our society, not the movie stars or sports figures that we so adulate.
Arlington National Cemetery is a sacred and moving place. The thousands of white markers each hold the story of individual lives cut short in service to our country. It matters little whether one is a pacifist or someone who believes in the necessity of defending our freedoms with war. We all understand the sacrifice of anyone who has donned a uniform and traveled to a foreign land to encounter and face danger.
We’ve turned Memorial Day into a time for catching some of the best sales of the year. Admittedly I used this weekend to purchase a mattress and a washing machine. I received flyers and emails reminding me of great prices on everything from clothing to cooking utensils. Lots of folks are flocking to the malls. All of that is fine as long as we all take a moment somewhere in our revelry to remember and honor those who have been members of the military in both the past and the present.
While we are cooking our burgers on the grill or lounging on the beach we need to consider just how much we owe to our military. Even those who have made it back to civilian life are not necessarily unscathed. Sometimes they carry silent scars that wound their hearts forever. They have seen and endured situations about which they often never speak. They have lost friends in the heat of battle. They have seen death and destruction.
I love the people who dedicate themselves to our soldiers on this day. There are boy scouts in town after town who set out American flags in their neighbors’ yards. Two of my grandson’s awoke early this morning to do this task. There are runners who have traveled in a two hundred fifty mile marathon to raise awareness and money for the children of fallen soldiers so that those kids may one day attend college. There are celebrities who donate their time for memorial concerts and fundraising events. There will be a special wreath laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery today. Hopefully people will visit the graves of their deceased loved ones who honorably served or at least think of them in a prayer or a toast.
I have been lucky so far. None of my dearest friends or members of my family were harmed while they were in the military. My great grandfather, John, served two tours of duty in the Union Army during the Civil War and went on to marry and to father a large family including my grandmother, Minnie. My uncles, William, Paul, Andrew, and Louie came home from World War II uninjured. My father served for a brief time at the tail end of that conflict. My father-in-law fought in Korea. My cousins, Paul and Andy, volunteered during the Vietnam War. Friends, Bill and Charlie, were active military at that time as well. Each of them has been quite proud of the work that they did and the sacrifices that they made for our country.
Today a number of my former students are in the military. It’s a difficult life, much more so than most of us experience as young adults. In essence they give up their own freedoms for a time. They must learn the skills of warfare and respond each day to regimens not of their own making. They miss birthdays, holidays, and milestones. They never quite know where they will be sent or what they will ultimately see. They are heroes to me and today I want to thank them for being that thin line that separates the rest of us from harm. Be safe and know that we honor you with our thanks!