I woke up this morning, Monday morning, Memorial Day morning. Memorial Day. That’s the day we remember and pay tribute to those who have given their lives for others and their country by serving in the armed forces. As many mornings go, it was quiet and peaceful. I was able to think, meditate, pray, read scripture, etc. I found myself thinking about this day, specifically that concept of “giving their lives…” for others.
I have never served in the military. I signed up for the draft at the ripe old age of eighteen, though was never called. I went to college. I studied concepts. The only reason I ever picked up a weapon/firearm was for recreational purposes. The only fights I’ve participated in were the typical scraps that young boys had, and those were few enough to count on one hand. And I never feared for my life in those moments. There it is. I never feared for my life.
My great grandfather was in the Army. My grandfather was in the Army. My dad was in the Army. My brothers Steve and Avery were in the Army. That’s a very short list that could continue with many other relatives and friends known to me. I recently had a conversation with Avery who served in Korea, came home for a spell, then was shipped off to Afghanistan during our country’s attempts at fighting the Taliban. He was fortunate enough to have never had to fire his rifle at another human being. He was unfortunate enough to feel the fear of warfare. Of going out on a patrol, not knowing if his vehicle would hit an improvised explosive device, not knowing if someone would get off a shot that would take him down. The fear of warfare.
My grandfather felt the fear as he and his unit crossed over the Rhine River from France into Germany in 1945. He saw things that shook him to the core of his being. I remember the first time I realized what that experience did to him. I was young, maybe ten or eleven, and it was the fourth of July. We were all headed out to see the fireworks. Except for Grandpa. He stayed home. I was told that the sounds reminded him too much of the war. That was thirty-plus years earlier and the sounds still took him right back. (I recently saw some fireworks and I thought of him again.)
It’s the fear that keeps nagging at me. I’ve heard the stories. Read the accounts. I remember talking to a WWII vet who fought against the NAZI war machine during the Battle of the Bulge. He’d faced hand to hand combat four different times. He remembered like it had just happened killing a German soldier with his bayonet, seeing his eyes roll back in his head just before his heart stopped. He remembered the piece of shrapnel that entered his leg forcing him to hide in the snow by a tree for three days until the allied army advanced back into his area to rescue him. He cried several times while sharing this with me. I saw his eyes. I saw the fear.
Yes, it’s the immense terror that gets me. To give one’s life for another is one thing. To do it in this way is unimaginable. Willingly marching into a situation that cannot truly be explained, only felt, knowing that each second could be your last. Then that fateful second being your last.
You. That’s what you did, you great soldier. You brave knight of the battlefield. You most likely weren’t fearless. You most likely were terrified. You had horrific sounds erupting all around you. You saw things that I never want to see. You might have suffered intensely before breathing your last. It may have happened quickly for you. But you did it. You gave up your life for others. How am I supposed to repay that??? I didn’t do anything to earn that! You didn’t even know me!
I’m going to a barbecue today. I will make small talk with people that I am meeting for the first time. I won’t talk about you or what you did. But it will be with me. I’ll wear what you did like my own skin because I get to freely breathe air, eat potato salad, enjoy a burger because someone like you did something I’m not sure I could ever do. That’s your gift to me, to us…to all of us. I wish you could see the celebrations. I wish you could be with your family one more time. Thank you for your gift.
For those of you who felt that fear and made it back to us: Thank you, too. We are supposed to celebrate you on Veteran’s Day, but I’m going to think about you today as well.