While the rest of the country celebrates with picnics and barbeques, gatherings of friends or family, beverages hoisted aloft, laughter and smiles all around, others are quietly remembering those who are not here any longer. Sure, there are parades where we honor active military and the fallen soldiers who have defended our freedoms. For many people, however, those parades are not clear messages, with floats of farmers mixed with classic cars or heavy machinery. Few parades have more than one or two military units represented, sometimes just as the honor guard at the beginning.
I know several veterans of our various military forces. Most of them are vibrant and happy people. In every instance, I can say that they have come out of our military changed individuals. Look at every veteran around you. They stand tall, as tall as their age will let them. Even those without the ability to stand will not slouch in their place. The armed forces showed them who they are, and gave them the courage and self esteem to stand tall and proud.
That is not all they received, however. They also received a terrible knowledge and training: the power and skills necessary to take a life. They stand for us, shouldering a burden few could possibly understand. Because they could take our place in the battlefields, we can now enjoy our freedoms. They were asked – most willing, some not – to stand in our stead to defend our ideals. This knowledge, this training, this burden weighs heavily on all of the members of our armed forces. Their reward is not monetary, but the pride that our way of life continues.
I’ve talked with several veterans. Most of them have scores of funny stories to tell. You can probably hear one or two now, usually as some of the guys are gathered around holding a frosty can or chilled bottle. There’s a laugh shared about some guy they knew who was the butt of pranks in training, or some stupid chant that they used to march to. Perhaps it’s a tale of something they used to do that would lighten the mood or pass time on a boring post. But none of them will talk about combat.
Sure, you can ask them about it. But most of the responses I have gotten have come with a moment of silence, and “the look.” It’s not much, but it instantly is recognizable. They are sizing us up, seeing if we are ready for the horrors of fighting. They may even begin to share some of the tales of their nights patrolling, but often will revert back to some funny tale or polite ending of a boring event, as though we are not really ready for their combat tales.
We are not.
Somehow, it has gotten around that real war is like it is portrayed in the movies: short, stylistically brutal, but the good guys always win and the bad guys don’t. The heroes always come home to a warm welcome, and while one or two people may not have returned, most of the squads do. We have asked ourselves repeatedly to tone down the horror, compact it and symbolize it, and package it into two or three hour chunks that we can watch on a screen and cheer, shed a tear, or root for our favorites.
Reality is different. I doubt that there is anything that could prepare me for a real war short of the training that happens in the armed forces. We got a brief taste of that in September of 2001, when people were pulled in from non-combatants into the front lines of a non-traditional war. We got another taste of that in Oklahoma last week, although we were attacked by nature instead of another country.
Is it any wonder that some people are so scarred by their experience that they flinch when there are loud noises near them? That they choose to spend time with others who have had similar experiences? Someone who understands the burdens they bore, the pressures on them. Remember, these individuals had training shoved on them, and they know dark and horrible things that they can do to others. Yet they have served their time, and are free to walk among us as fathers, mothers, uncles, aunts, husbands, wives, and more.
They have witnessed the price that must be paid for us to enjoy our freedoms. For every game going on, someone had to pay for more than a ball: someone had to pay for our right to choose a side. Some of them paid with effort. Some paid with horrible images that haunt them. Some paid with flesh, losing a part of them so we can have them as a part of our society. Some paid with their lives.
We say we have three holidays a year to thank them, and remember all that they have done. We gather in groups of family and friends, sharing in each other’s company. We hold parades to salute them. We continue to live as a country, as a society. On Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Veterans Day, we should thank them. For being willing to pay prices that the average person cannot. For taking our place in harm’s way. For paying for our freedoms, sometimes with a price that we could not want to pay.
On this holiday, this day of remembrance, I would like to thank our veterans and active members of our military, and salute those who have left this world. We should let them share their stories of pranks, laughter, and merriment. It may be only a little peek into their world, but it is the least we can do for them. Especially in light of all they have done for us.