“Freedom has a taste to those who fight and nearly die for it, that the protected will never know.”
Those words, etched into an American POW cell in Vietnam, ring true for anyone who has faced death wearing the uniform of this country. Once you have served, you can’t put your hand over your heart and sing “Bombs bursting in air” without a strong mental image. “Land of the free, and the home of the brave” means something personal.
While so many Americans serve their country, their communities, in so many ways, on Memorial Day we pay tribute to those that have laid down their lives for freedom.
For those who have served or have a family member in the service, Memorial Day is more than a long weekend ushering in summertime. It is sacred. It’s not just a blanket tribute to our troops either — you remember faces and you hear the voices of the friends who didn’t come home.
It is the 228,000 flags on white headstones lining Arlington National Cemetery, but it is also the one body bag you hoped you would never have to see.
From 2005 to 2006, I served as an Army surgeon with the 344th Combat Support Hospital in Iraq. I remember seeing a U.S. Marine praying his rosary as we took his buddy into the operating room. I remember the feeling an hour later when I had to walk back out there and tell him that his friend did not survive. I remember those we saved. I remember those we did not.
In recent decades, the number of Americans who have tasted the fight for freedom firsthand has been declining. In 2016, Pew Research Center (PRC) reported that only 7% of U.S. adults were veterans, down from 18% in 1980, according to the Census Bureau. With the end of the military draft in 1973, the number of active duty Americans has gone from approximately 3.5 million to 1.3 million in today’s volunteer force, according to PRC. That’s less than 1% of U.S. citizens serving in our military, which also means fewer families have a personal tie to the forces with their relatives serving.
Honestly, it’s a beautiful thing that so many Americans are able to go about their daily lives — watching a baseball game, shopping for groceries, going fishing, driving to work — so far removed from the realities facing our troops on the front lines. Most have not felt the weight of body armor or the weight of hearing that a fellow soldier you served alongside won’t be coming back from their mission. They haven’t experienced that surreal wave of relief when you step foot back on American soil and, for the first time in months, don’t have to worry about those who want to kill you. They aren’t waiting at home in heart-quickening fear for that phone call with the dreaded news.
It is a blessing, and a gift, this ability to not worry about those things — just as it is a privilege and an honor to be able to volunteer to shoulder that burden.
Just remember that the peace that allows us to buy hamburgers and hotdogs for the grill this weekend and to gather with our friends comes because someone else is standing on the front line. When you go to bed tonight and you feel safe, secure, and unafraid, remember there’s a reason. Many have given their lives so that you can do just that.
As the military-citizen gap continues to widen, it is important to be reminded that, at its heart, this weekend is not just about glamorizing the sweeping heroics of the men and women who have lost their lives in battle. Rather, it is a day to remember, with humble gratitude, the sacrifices and raw courage of real people — people like Army Major John P. Pryor. A well-known and respected trauma surgeon, Dr. Pryor said goodbye to his wife and three children on 9/11 and went straight to Ground Zero to provide care. Moved by his experiences, he volunteered for the Army Reserves and deployed to Iraq as a combat surgeon. John was killed on Christmas Day in 2008, when a mortar round struck near his living quarters in Mosul, Iraq.
I think of people like Fr. Timothy Vakoc, an Army chaplain who was injured in Iraq in 2004 and succumbed to his wounds in 2008. I will always remember what he once said, “I think that the safest place for me to be is in the center of God’s will, and if that’s in the line of fire, that’s where I’ll be.” Like so many throughout our history, when the call came — Vakoc stood and said, “Here I am. Send me.” He did not lose his life, he gave his life.
This weekend is a tribute to them — and to the many moms and dads, sisters and brothers, who, as Abraham Lincoln said, “here gave their lives that that nation might live.” It’s a tribute to those who have shouldered burdens, braved enemy fire, and tasted freedom in ways the protected will never know. It’s a tribute to those who strap on helmets and body armor and volunteer to board planes to front lines far away, so the rest of us can enjoy our freedoms.
It’s a tribute to those who stood up and said, “Send me.”