My first memories of war go back to the Vietnam era of the mid-60s and early 70s. My first memory of war death reflects back to June of 1966 when my step-mother’s brother Jerry, Uncle Jerry, lost his life fighting in Vietnam. I have vague memories of Uncle Jerry but the atmosphere at home after word came of his death seems to have been burned deeper into my gray matter files. I was 7 years old.
From 1977 to 1981, I was assigned to the USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63). There were a few sailors who lost their lives along the way for one reason or another. I personally knew a couple of the men. We were in port at Pattaya Beach, Thailand, while deployed for a Western Pacific Cruise. The water was not deep enough to dock beachside so we would take boats to and from shore. One of the Chief Warrant Officers who was a mentor of mine was heading to or coming back from liberty, my memory is not fully clear on that but he had a heart attack on the launch. His death hit hard to the many who personally knew him. Years later aboard the USS Enterprise (CVN-65) we lost several others while on deployment. I knew who the men were but wasn’t close to them. The loss was still felt the same amongst the crew.
A few short years later, a friend of mine was killed in a berthing fire aboard ship. Although we were able to put out the fire before anyone was burned, he died in his sleep of smoke inhalation. He and I had been on liberty together just a couple of days before we left port in Subic Bay, Philippines. I volunteered to take the casket back to his family.
That event was a very interesting awakening to the importance of the death of a military loved one. We weren’t in any specific hostilities at the time but his death was somehow just as important. I know it was to his family. His parents had divorced and though they came together for the funeral, each “side” of the family wanted to spend time with me and have me tell them about the times John and I had spent together…you see, I was the last link they had to their son. Of course, I left out the drunken sailor stories and the times we chased girls in different ports but I did my best to share the wonderful, exploratory adventures we had such as swimming at Waikiki Beach, our failed trip to visit Mount Fuji (we got on the wrong train and had to get back to the ship by nightfall — we didn’t get more than a glimpse in the distance); and the time we woke up to the water buffalo with its head sticking in the window of the room we shared while visiting a small rural village in farm land Philippines.
Understanding the love they showed to me in place of him, I think, was the first time I truly understood what we were doing in the service of our country. Why we were there when others weren’t. What it really meant to the families we left behind. I presented the flag to John’s mother without shedding a tear. I had time to think on the plane trip back. I went on with my life.
Later in my career, I presented the flags to family members at another eighteen military funerals—most were veterans and some were on active duty at the time of their deaths. I did not know any of them personally but I knew a little bit about the lives they had lived while in the military. I never once shed a tear when I presented those flags. The guys in my unit told me they were happy that I was the one presenting the flags because they didn’t think they could hold it together. I would tell them that I just did what I had to do—it was just part of my duty.
“On behalf of the President of the United States and the United States Armed Forces, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s service to this Country and a grateful (branch of service).”
Today, 15 years since my retirement from 23 years in the United States Navy, of course is very different. I don’t attend parades on memorial and veterans days; I no longer attend military funerals (though after I retire in the real world, I’ll probably volunteer to be a part of the local honor guard); and I rarely attend veteran events. It is often difficult for me to watch a good war movie, or hear about a current military funeral on the news. However, I now freely shed a tear for “all” the men and women who gave their lives for this country. I understand that not every death was given in war, in combat, but that each of them would have given their lives for no other reason than they were there to serve their country; and they understood why they were there.
You may not personally know someone who died during military service but nonetheless, you have been affected. The next time you gripe about something that you don’t like about this country, remember those who died to ensure your freedom to complain about it; when you walk down the street or travel the highway, free to come and go in most places in this county, know that a military person died somewhere along the way to help ensure you and I still have those freedoms. And, the next time you meet someone who lost a loved one in the service of this country, if appropriate, give ‘em a hug and let them know you appreciate the sacrifice.
Enjoy the freedoms you have that remain…there may not always be someone willing to put their life on the line to ensure you continue to have them.
John 15:13 (NIV)
Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.