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May 31, 2010

They Still Serve

If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.

- Rudyard Kipling

Antietam illumination-thumb-400x285-thumb-500x356-thumb-500x356.jpgJust down the road from me is the battlefield of Antietam. It is hard to believe, looking over the now silent fields of Sharpsburg, Maryland that nearly one hundred and fifty years ago that hallowed ground was literally soaked in blood.

Men lay stacked like cordwood in the Bloody Lane. The Irish Brigade of New York lost six men in ten. But those numbers, staggering though they may seem to modern ears, pale beside the grim roll call of death that was to take place before sunset: 23,000 casualties in a single battle on a single day in September of 1862.

There is no one now alive who remembers the men who fought at Antietam. No one alive who falls suddenly silent at the sound of a love song, remembering a first kiss or a whispered promise. No one who can't forget the empty chair at Christmas dinner, who feels the loss as keenly now as they did when first they heard the awful news.

And yet there are many who stare back across the chasm of history at that day. Who pause, on a bitterly cold day in December, to mark the passing of souls as numberless as the stars in a winter sky. And though they knew not a single one of those men personally, though their lives were never touched by the loss of a father, a son, a brother, a friend; they remember still.

On this Memorial Day, I would like to ask each of you to pause - wherever you are and whatever you are doing - at 3 o'clock to remember the thousands who have fallen in the service of this great nation. It is hard to come to terms with the magnitude of this loss; to imagine the hundreds of thousands of American families who have lost a loved one over the past two hundred years. It seems too solemn, too sad an occasion for mere words. And yet it is not all sadness:

Many of our fellow citizens have no understanding of the difference between Veterans Day and Memorial Day, other than it means a long weekend. Many people, especially those with no connection to the military, often confuse the two, citing Memorial Day as a day to thank those serving the nation in uniform. Recently, a friend of mine commented that “Memorial Day is meant to pay homage to those who gave their lives for this country and our way of life. It is a day to honor the dead. There is NO such thing as “Happy Memorial Day.”

Respectfully, I disagree, in part, anyway.

Memorial Day is a happy yet solemn, joyful yet tearful, partly sunny yet mostly cloudy kind of day.

We are living the days these men and women never will. Live them well, be happy, and enjoy the blessings of liberty their service and sacrifice have bought. Although we take pause today to remember their absence, we must also take this day to celebrate the very liberty they have secured.

Memorial Day should be a "happy" day, the same as Easter. We remember the sacrifice, and the cost, yet we rejoice in the promise of chocolate rabbits, only six more weeks till spring (if Christ came out of the tomb and saw his shadow) and painted eggs, god-awfully early church services, plastic grass, and kids on a blood-sugar bender. We remember the sacrifice, and the cost, of the loss of friends and family on this day. I remember Josh wearing a cape and boxer shorts and little else, standing in the Kuwaiti desert and saluting passing vehicles. I remember sharing stories and fixing the world’s problems over barbeque and beer with Dan. I remember Gary creatively counseling another lieutenant who just refused to “get it.” I remember these men fondly, and am thankful to wear the same uniform, to serve the same nation, and to carry forward where they cannot.

Dan, Josh, and Gary can't spend this day, or any other day with their families, or among us, and we are a poorer nation because of that. I miss them, but today I pay special attention to their absence, and jealously guard my time with my family. We will have a happy day, because my friends, my mentors, my brothers have already paid for it, in advance, with interest.

It is not all sadness because these men and women did not die for nothing. Their sacrifices, by some indefinable alchemy, continue to breath new life into the otherwise abstract ideals upon which this nation was founded: life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness. But more than that, by their example they changed the world they left behind.

There is Matt, who found in grief a call to action.

And Emily, a young Marine widow whose sorrow only made her more determined to help others.

There are Andy and Linda Ferraro who honor their loved one by continuing to serve what he died to defend.

A healer who followed in his son's footsteps.

And there is Abbey, who drew determination from bitter loss.

When you remember the fallen, remember also those who, from a heartbreak few of us can imagine, have found the courage and strength to do things few of us are capable of. This is their gift to us, on this Memorial Day. They still serve. Their spirits live on in the hearts of those who loved them as well as those who, like the hundreds of men and women who gather on a frozen battlefield each December to honor men long dead, never knew loss firsthand.

They still serve, so long as we the living do not forget; so long as we allow their example to inspire us. This is why we must tell - and re-tell - the stories of those who fell defending American ideals. They have so much to teach us, if only we are willing to pause for a moment. To listen ... and remember:

I cannot describe to you my feelings on this calm summer night, when two thousand men are sleeping around me, many of them enjoying the last, perhaps, before that of death -- and I, suspicious that Death is creeping behind me with his fatal dart, am communing with God, my country, and thee.

I have sought most closely and diligently, and often in my breast, for a wrong motive in thus hazarding the happiness of those I loved and I could not find one. A pure love of my country and of the principles have often advocated before the people and "the name of honor that I love more than I fear death" have called upon me, and I have obeyed.

Sarah, my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me to you with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me irresistibly on with all these chains to the battlefield.

The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them so long. And hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when God willing, we might still have lived and loved together and seen our sons grow up to honorable manhood around us. I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me - perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar -- that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not, my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name.

They serve us, still.

Posted by Cassandra at May 31, 2010 07:54 AM

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Lest we forget.....

Vaya con Dios, dear friend.


Posted by: Don Brouhaha at May 31, 2010 11:23 AM

...when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name.

That breaks my heart.

Posted by: Cassandra at May 31, 2010 12:04 PM

Posted by: david foster at May 31, 2010 12:12 PM

...when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name.

That breaks my heart.

Posted by: Cassandra at May 31, 2010 12:04 PM

That is why I think it's easier to face the threat of personal danger than the loss of one you love.

Today my flag continues to fly at half-mast, beyond the usual 12 noon, Memorial Day schedule, in front of Hunville. After the 3 p.m. moment of silence I will raise Old Glory with pride and respect for the history she represents, the future she promises, and to honor those who serve us now. Pride in and respect for all of our honorable men and women in the uniformed services, and the dear ones they leave behind while they perform their selfless duty.

My deepest appreciation goes to each and every one of you.

As Don wishes, Vaya con Dios, so too do I.

Posted by: bthun at May 31, 2010 01:03 PM

It is so wonderful to have you back with us, my friend. Thank you.

Posted by: Cassandra at May 31, 2010 04:20 PM