Today is the day selected on the calendar when our nation is supposed to take time to remember the sacrifice made by the men and women who have lost their lives in the service of our country. Hundreds of thousands have paid the ultimate price while wearing the uniform of the Minute Men, the Continental Army, the Confederate or Union army, or the United States Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines or Coast Guard. This the day when we are supposed to pause to remember that freedom is not free.
Unfortunately, for many people in our nation it is simply a day off from work, a day to have a bbq or to go to the beach. There is nothing wrong with those things, of course, and the greatest celebrations and remembrances often involve times of sharing a meal. The trouble is, though, when people see today as for those activities only. Yesterday our pastor shared some of the history of Memorial Day, and I have to say that far too few of us really take time to remember what has been done on our behalf.
I suspect that those who have served in the armed forces and those who have lost loved ones in the service of the nation have no trouble remembering what Memorial Day is really all about. My grandfather served in World War II and, as I understand it, was injured and assumed dead by his unit while in Italy. He was on top of a building that was hit by a shell, causing the building to collapse. He was buried in the rubble. Though his unit moved on, some other soldiers (not American) later found him, and stitched him up with hemp that came from untwisting a rope. I say “as I understand it” not because I have any reason to doubt the veracity of this account, but because I never had the opportunity to hear it from my grandfather. Of the ten grandchildren my father and his brother and sister gave to my grandparents, I am the only one who ever saw my grandfather at home, and that was only when I was very young. The remainder of his years were spent in a nursing home or a VA hospital, and rarely was he in full possession his faculties when any of us visited him. He passed away while I was in high school. Were the injuries he sustained during the war the direct cause of his poor health and mental powers later in life? I don’t know. I really never knew him, and what I have learned about him since he passed away leads to believe there were other causes, too. Regardless, thinking about my father’s father standing on top of a building half a world away when that same building was hit by a shell fired by an enemy determined to eliminate America and what she stands for helps to put into perspective what the men and women of the armed forces do, and do willingly.
My father was in the Navy. He was never involved in conflict, though the Vietnam War was still going when he enlisted. He has talked some about his service, and has shown us his white sailor’s cap and pictures of him in uniform and the ship he served on, but his time in the Navy was short and, I suppose, relatively uneventful, and it has never been the subject of lengthy conversation. Still, I am proud to think that my father wore the uniform of the United States Navy and was willing to do so. I have a step-nephew who recently returned from his second tour in Afghanistan.
War during my lifetime has been completely different than any previous war. During the first Gulf War I, along with millions of others, watched the action on the television. We could literally watch the path of a missile as it sped toward its target, the screen going white and then black when it hit. We could listen to daily briefings from General Schwarzkopf or General Powell. We had unprecedented access to the realities of war. And yet, at the same time, I think war has also seemed more remote and disconnected to our daily lives that conflicts of the past. We never hear air raid sirens, we don’t own gas masks, and we have not been subjected to rationing. There is no push to buy war bonds. In other words, unless we know someone who is in the war, we have not been inconvenienced by war other than at the gas pump.
Except for September 11, 2001, I have never known what it was like to feel like our nation was vulnerable. The possibility of an attack has always been a remote possibility during my lifetime. Even though I can remember the last years of the Cold War, and I remember being aware that the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. possessed hundreds upon hundreds of nuclear weapons and that, at least in theory, nuclear war could bring the world as we know it to a sudden halt, it was always such a remote possibility that I do not remember ever being afraid that it might happen. I have never wondered if I would be drafted to serve in the military, and when I turned 18 our nation was at peace and there was absolutely no push or pressure for me to even consider service in the military. While I grew up respecting the men and women who serve, and recognizing the value of their service, there seemed little need for me to even think about the armed forces.
Yet, the reality is that there seemed little need because there have always been enough men and women willing to serve. Other than 9/11 and the completely unorthodox tactic of turning commercial airliners into weapons of mass destruction our country has never been attacked during my lifetime because we have men and women who stand on the proverbial wall and keep me safe. The freedoms I so often take for granted were purchased with the blood of patriots who gave their all to gain freedom and to protect it. The liberties I have grown up accustomed to have been defended by men and women who thought they were valuable enough to give their lives for. And I am grateful….