Last week the world watched, horrified, as twisted and evil men shouted their “reasons” for ambushing and murdering a British soldier.
My son, Chris, is currently serving in RAF Lakenheath, about ninety minutes north of RAB Woolwich by way of the M11. While he was well away from danger and any fallout that may or may not happen in London due to this sociopathic butchery, he is still far closer to London than he is to Florida. Parents understand the juxtaposition of that proximity.
Tens of thousands of American parents live with these feelings every day. Their children are serving in places where violence and death is a daily occurrence. They do not know where, exactly, their children are, or where the violence will strike next. So they treasure each letter and prize each phone call, email or Skype session.
For many, those letters and emails have stopped. They get no more correspondence from their children, only one more letter and, perhaps, a pair of somber men in uniform standing at their door.
I have been working on a memoir with a retired USAF Lt. Colonel whose job it was to write those letters for Presidents Johnson and Nixon. During our last conversation, Spencer told me how he hated that job, hated the details he was obliged to disclose and hated more those details that he must keep to himself.
His only boss during some of this work was a nameless, faceless voice on a phone in Washington. In those days the letters were for servicemen KIA during clandestine operations. Men who knew what they signed up for. Men whose families would never really know how they died.
This brings me back to that British soldier walking down the street, murdered by a countryman seduced by evil.
It is difficult to fathom what would drive a person to do such a thing to a stranger, particularly when the attendant rage is vicarious. As the Daily Telegraph noted, the terrorist had a thick London accent. I wonder how many times this monster passed other soldiers on the street. And I wonder, as only a parent can, if he passed my son the last time Chris and his friends visited London.
Earlier today I read a story about a B17 crew killed 3 months before VE Day, when their plane collided with another in formation. Propwash and overcorrection broke it apart, dooming both crews. After 45 missions the plane simply had enough. It could have been any crew.
Then I read about the high rate of suicide among recent veterans. PTSD, survivor’s guilt, those messy nonspecific wounds often as invisible as a severed limb.
On this Memorial Day I am left with much to ponder. But no direction my thoughts take me will change the fact that our men and women in uniform risk making the ultimate sacrifice each time they wear that uniform.
In firefights, clandestine missions, liberations, convoys, training exercises or simply walking down the street. It is a price that they have come to terms with, a deposit that, thankfully, most will be refunded. But not all.
While names are undeniably more powerful, all I have are numbers…
- War Between the States: 625,000
- World War I: 116,516
- World War II: 405,339
- Korean War: 36,516
- Vietnam: 58,209
- Gulf War: 294
- Iraq: 4,487
- Afghanistan: 2,031
There are countless other conflicts, small and large, not on this accounting. 40 people died during the Invasion of Panama in 1989. My stepfather brought me a machete in a hand-tooled scabbard when he came back from that one. 19 were killed during an operation called “Provide Comfort.”
But the names of the operations do not matter. Only the names of the people represented by those numbers. People whose families received letters and grim soldiers at the door. Letters signed by my friend, Spencer, and other men who “hated their ‘necessary’ jobs.”
I am tempted to draw conclusions. To tie all this up in a nice little bow and tell you what to think. But I’ll not insult you or the memory of these brave men and women by trying to simplify or whitewash these facts.
Sometimes stories have no moral. Only memories.