A Veteran's Day Meditation
Some months back I wrote, buoyed by the persistent fears of a father, how my son the Army Special Ops Captain was leaving for Afghanistan to begin yet another tour of duty. Indeed, in "Wrestling with a Young Man's Duty," I attempted, amongst other things, to articulate the dread that every parent, wife, or child must countenance when their loved one flies away from their care and into Harm's Way. Having invested so much of our hope and joy into these brave young hearts spinning away from us, a part of us stops breathing and stands in limbo on a shelf until they return. Last week, my "Young Captain" came home, and I could finally begin to go about the business of living again -- of planting for the harvest that all living creatures undertake as they toil in the expectation of happiness and meaning.
Today is Veteran's Day. In order that we may understand in truth, one's inquiry must start at the very beginning.
The Great War, as it was once known, had been the most terrible conflagration of artificially imposed human death, suffering, and misery that had been experienced in modern times. This cataclysm of sixteen million dead and twenty million wounded irrevocably changed the cultural/political landscape and the very gene pool of Europe. So great was the collective cry of relief when the Entente and Central Powers laid down their arms on that crisp Fall morning, that what we now know as World War I was universally heralded as the final "war to end all wars." In retrospect, the melding of unabashed hope and naïve hubris accompanying such a bold claim can now only raise an occasional cynical brow of incredulity; for we have since been bitterly schooled in the unveiled horrors of the human heart -- culled from the flinty crucible of the Twentieth Century.
But on the eleventh day of the eleventh hour of the eleventh month in the Year of Our Lord 1918, if for only a brief span of years, our spears -- even if not fully beaten into ploughshares, were put aside as men provisionally swore in their chests to make war on one another no longer. That following year, American President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed:
To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country's service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations...
It would not be until 1954 that the term Armistice was replaced with "Veteran" by President Eisenhower, as the hallowed grounds of the Somme and Verdun were partially eclipsed in remembrance by exotic haunts such as Normandy, Leyte Gulf, Pork Chop Hill, and a thousand others. Indeed, our Veterans have stood before us as flesh and granite living and bleeding testaments: answering the eternal rancor abiding in the black designs of tyrants. In our namesake, through the exertions of fathers, sons, and lovers, resides the oxygen of liberty that fuels the noble heart in throwing down those grim towers -- in the gilded service of peoples who can never repay us and whose countenance we have never fully beheld.
But we who can rejoice in our ecstatic blessings following the return of our beloved warriors know well in the vault of our beings that it could easily have been otherwise, and it seems that for nearly every tear-stained reunion filled with beaming smiles, there has been a darkened house with pulled shades where men and women wrestle with the lonely blistering repercussions that tragically accompany that mailed fist of duty -- as it forever freezes and torments in its glacial embrace. For such as these, the yearly exhumation of beautiful ribbons and the eloquent prose of poppy strewn fields grows threadbare as aching arms strain to remember the fallen who remain forever young. These are the harried lives left behind on the windward shore of a Great Sea to nurse afresh wounds that are excised annually -- that no Gold Star will ever redeem. For such as these, the time we have accorded as Veteran's Day stands as a dual-edged knife of precious and grievous memory.
Only five days after his twenty-second birthday, at an age when young people have only begun tasting life on their own, Marine Cpl. Jeff Starr was struck down by a sniper's bullet in Ramadi on Memorial Day 2005. Despite his youth, Starr was well into his third Iraqi deployment when the bullet pierced his heart. He never regained consciousness. Back in 2004, Jeff and thirteen of his fellow soldiers were pinned down in Falluja by several hundred members of the insurgency and fought tooth and claw for several long agonizing hours before reinforcements arrived. This harrowing event would make a profound impression on Starr, prompting him to compose a letter that was recovered posthumously and delivered to his parents in August, months after his death. He wrote this following prescient letter to his girlfriend:
Obviously, if you are reading this, then I have died in Iraq.
I'm writing this for one reason only. On April 13th 2004, I thought I was going to die. My only regret is that I hadn't spent enough time with you. That I hadn't told you everything I wanted to. Being in Iraq for a 3rd time, I don't want to feel that way again because it was the worst feeling ever. So this letter is in case I won't ever get the chance to tell you. I kind of predicted this, that is why I'm writing this in November. A third time just seemed like I'm pushing my chances. I don't regret going, everybody dies but few get to do it for something as important as freedom. It may seem confusing why we are in Iraq, it's not to me. I'm here helping these people, so that they can live the way we live. Not have to worry about tyrants or vicious dictators. To do what they want with their lives. To me that is why I died. Others have died for my freedom, now this is my mark. Well I can't type forever, I know you want to read more but I thought simple and to the point would be easier. I love you with all my heart.
Goodbye my Love...
Cpl. Starr had planned to leave the Corps in August and begin a career in law enforcement. He had joined the service as a high school senior and had earned two naval medals of distinction, one for his valor. His parents, Brian and Shellie Starr of Snohomish, Washington, as well as all who loved his shining face, have borne, and will continue all of their days, to bear the burden that a young corporal saw fit to take upon his youthful shoulders. And for this we honor him on this eventful day.
On Veteran's Day, when this once great City of Human Freedom again bows its head and remembers the collective sacrifice of its Best and Brightest Children, it should be a civic blasphemy, at least for this day, to engage in the wrangling of venal politics. The heroic deed needs little fanfare because the noble renunciation of one's claim to life or the faithful rendering of service to others shouts to the very hilltops. Tales of gallant service should reverberate gratitude in our soul's very marrow, and the fact that such a day is often reduced to just another episode of unreflective pleasure reveals reams about us spiritually.
But on this day the hedonist shall have no place. This day is for those who have: answered the clarion call, manned the ramparts, and poured themselves into the breach. These so honored are incandescent lives known perhaps only to their family and friends -- who all share a part in that stunning loss that will never fully heal. The American Veteran has always warred down tyranny without blinking, without regard to life or treasure -- without standing down. In Arlington, or in a verdant shrine in ten thousand home towns, those ribboned crosses bear homage to liberty in silent witness. It is the solemn echo of sacred duty, of towering sacrifice, and of abiding love.
Glenn Fairman writes from Highland, Ca. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.