From before the French and Indian Wars, from before the American Revolution, both conflicts punctuated by the hollow rattle of smoothbore muskets, to the rolling thunder of the trapdoor Springfield at San Juan Hill, to the sharp crack of the Krags, to the 03s, 03A3s, Garands, M-14s, M-16s, M-4s and newer models being used now in the ongoing fight against terrorists and other dust-ups we know very little about, our military’s rifles have belched forth their death and destruction in the hands of our warriors since before we were a nation. All of those who died in combat, or later from the effects of their service in combat, died after most worthy service.
As long as I author this small column, Memorial Day’s contribution will honor our military’s combat dead who, forever, must be remembered. Oh yes, there are those who simply don’t understand how we can venerate our fallen warriors, or maybe they simply don’t give a damn. As far as I’m concerned, those folks number among the vile and insignificant. Unfortunately many have insinuated themselves into positions of civilian authority and national news media and politics. Their verisimilitude taints the waters of self-respect and of our national pride.
The national pride of this country, (and yes, despite what some say, that pride still exists), and the respect for its warriors have been bought with blood and paid for by our warriors, many of whom paid the ultimate price. From the first shot fired to the last one, for every purple heart earned, for every combat medal, bronze star, silver star and Medal of Honor awarded, our fighting men and women and their families have every right to be proud.
As our thoughts turn to spring, it wasn’t but a few weeks ago that children played in the snow outside their warm, comfortable homes. Before the virus, expensive ski lodges were filled with citizens of all ages eager to sweep down pristine slopes anticipating the adrenalin rush to come. But to a young American marine lying in the snow at a place called Chosin Reservoir, in a remote country called Korea, with the mercury hovering around a body-numbing 35 degrees below zero, chipping frozen rations from a can with his KA-Bar, so he could let the food melt in his mouth, the snow wasn’t so peaceful and beautiful.
As he lay there in the snow, shivering in the cold, anticipating the next screaming charge of hordes of Communist Chinese and North Koreans, even then knowing his firearm’s action was frozen inoperable by the extreme cold, he knew he was a member of an elect few chosen to serve and, if called for, die for his country.
While the pampered elite stepped their insulated ski boots comfortably into the bindings of their newest set of skis back in the states, ready for the adrenalin rush of a racing descent down the mountain and looking forward to a warm, pick-me-up at the lodge after, our young warrior looked one last time at his toes, black with frostbite, and knew they would have to be removed surgically. But surgery was never needed because a North Korean mortar found his foxhole and cold and snow and frostbite became of little concern.
We could change the scenario to a soldier lying in a rice paddy in Vietnam, a medic vainly trying to stuff his guts back inside the dying soldier’s body as the Agent Orange and human waste contaminated sludge that passed for water slowly turned red with his passing life. Or we could wonder at the crude humor of the sweating, filth-covered G.I., removing leeches from his body by burning them with his cigarette, all while cracking jokes with his buddies. Or the GIs assigned to recovery, stinking with the noxious smell of death and covered in nervous sweat as they move slowly across the recent battle site looking for body parts among the booby traps left by “Charlie.”
Troops that, while serving our nation’s interests fighting Communists in a remote jungle nation, would, years later, endure an agonizing death at the hands of a largely indifferent populace, in an underfunded Veteran’s Administration hospital or hospice from the cancerous effects of our own government’s bio-tactical weapon, “Agent Orange.” Service members who died largely unappreciated, unrecognized and some even homeless or unknown, but all of them loved and admired by those who have stood in their blood filled boots.
Or we could visit the pristine white sand beaches of Europe, covered with bodies sunbathing in various stages of dress and undress, citizens and locals on vacation. But 75 years ago the bleached sand was also covered with bodies, those same pristine beaches littered with green clumps that had once been men. Surrounded by spreading red blotches, the dead and dismembered lay on the sand, their legs in the surf as a pink foam washed about their heads. In the soiled waters offshore, bodies bobbed lifelessly in the rolling waves. American soldiers, mostly young men and smooth-cheeked boys from Heartland, U.S.A., now waiting for their last deployment. The dead are nothing if not patient.
All the while the privileged and the arrogant, snug and safe in their homes, raise toasts in honor of our warriors’ victories and smile inwardly that they were smart enough to have dodged that bullet. Some even callous enough to brag about it. This while the mothers of those who sacrificed all hang the banners with stars of gold in their windows and young ladies, widows now, whose husbands never came back, sit and stare blankly out the windows. Waiting? For a shadow on the sidewalk, a glimpse of smoke wafting in the spring breeze, a hope for the impossible? Both the dream and the future the young family hoped for, now dead.
If you take nothing else away from this quasi-patriotic essay, understand that all that you are, all that you have and all that you can be is because many people once believed so deeply in this experiment of a people’s government, of a free nation with everyone’s rights guaranteed in our constitution, that, despite all its flaws and problems, they were willing to fight and die for it. And that to give you the chance to prosper, should you decide to take it. All the while enjoying those freedoms so dearly won and entrusted to you by those brave warriors and envied by the rest of the world. Rights and freedoms ultimately destined to be frivolously discarded by the newer, “re-educated” generations.
From a position of utmost humility from one who has also looked into the eye of the tiger, for all those proud warriors who have been chosen to travel the trail less taken, I salute you.