Remembering Soldiers’ Sacrifices

As the poet Lawrence Binyon wrote in For The Fallen, “They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old; age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember them.”

Outside, fugitive winds from an unusually cool summer downpour, with monsoon-like intensity, are whipping and slashing against my picture window in a drenching that even Noah would have found unnerving.

Inside, I’ve lit the fireplace and soon feel the toasty warmth of flickering flames. Reclining in my favorite armchair next to the fire, my mind soon begins reflecting on events far in the past. This includes military friends and comrades still surviving and those who are no longer here. As an aged Viet Nam combat pilot, these moments in time become my own personal Veterans Day once more, as they often do.

More than anyone else, military veterans want an end to the beginning of all wars. We’ve smelled the burnt gunpowder and coppery scent of blood fresh from wounds. We’ve ducked countless times from the sound of enemy fire with a primitive and instinctual quickness. We’ve also lived for years, or what has seemed like years, in the imminence of random death.

War veterans, above all other people, pray for peace because we know the suffering, and we have borne the greatest wounds and psychological scars of these conflicts on nearly every continent. We don’t want to see our children, or our children’s children have to experience the same miseries.

Regardless of what many commonly believe, soldiers fight and die for each other — not especially for their country, mom or even apple pie… and certainly not because they volunteered or were drafted in previous eras.

When your helicopter is being “hosed-down” by enemy machine guns, in that critical no-man’s-land between takeoff and translational lift, or, if you’re an infantry “grunt” humping the boonies and they’re dropping mortars, rockets and RPGs around your ears, the only thing you care about at that moment is protecting yourself and those near you.

The epitome of bravery in combat is not always a frontal grenade assault on an enemy pillbox or bunker by a determined soldier.

Bravery is displayed in numerous ways. It can be an Army nurse or doctor covering a wounded soldier’s body with their own during an enemy mortar attack on a hospital or aid station. It could be a 2½-ton truck driver volunteering to gamble his life transporting ammunition and other critical supplies to besieged troops over oft-mined roads and through frequently ambushed areas.

They learned to forget their limitations and not be afraid to do what a normal person believed was impossible. Impossible doesn’t exist once someone’s done it.

A prime example that has always inspired me occurred just a few months after I was born and it involved four Army chaplains: two Protestants, one Catholic and one Jewish. They knowingly sacrificed their own lives to help save some of the 904 men aboard the SS Dorchester, a troop transport sunk by a Nazi U-boat off the coast of Greenland on 3 Feb 43.

Without regard for their own fate, these four chaplains helped quiet those who were panicked, assisted in building rafts and gave away their own lifejackets as the ship disappeared beneath frigid Atlantic waves.

In a letter to his father by one of these chaplains, 1Lt. Clark V. Poling, wrote, “Don’t pray that God will simply keep me safe, but will make me adequate.” The leadership, courage, spiritual values and selfless commitment to others by these four men were obviously more than “adequate.”

In my 27½ years of military service, 19 of which involved being a medical evacuation helicopter pilot on three continents, I’ve known and served with a great many brave men and women.

A number of them have been bestowed some of our country’s highest military medals for valor. Others merely went about their military specialties doing what had to be done in the best way they knew how. There didn’t appear to be any thought of reward, other than giving their best; most didn’t seem to be under the impression that they had done anything out of the ordinary.

Some of these people lived, but many died in a variety of tragic ways, and for this they all should be honored and remembered.

Revolutionary heroes
As one example from our country’s illustrious military history, many Americans may not be aware that approximately 25,000 of our patriots were killed during the Revolutionary War and thousands were wounded in our fight against England to gain our independence.

As all combat veterans intimately understand, war is a hardcore enterprise. It didn’t turn out to be personally advantageous for these warriors because soldiers, in any armed conflict, are normally the ones who suffer and bear the greatest burdens.

Americans who have fought in battle know, better than any, the price of freedom. They know it’s a whirlwind event, the life of the moment, with neither past nor future. Now their lives and bravery have been lumped into a common grave of collective memory that too many fail to recall at all, except on special occasions.

Those partisans all gave their pending nation more than they ever dreamed of receiving from her. One would hope that in our modern era this would still be a reality in the civilian world but, sadly, in so many instances it isn’t.

One nearly unbelievable example of what patriots of that day endured for the freedoms and rights we currently enjoy in our constitutional republic — while so many have a paid holiday from work, attend parades and speeches, and trips to mountains and beaches — is noted here.

South Carolina’s Jacob Brawler’s family contributed 23 soldiers to the Revolutionary War — Jacob and 21 sons fought and were killed; the sole surviving son was wounded, crippled and passed away a few years later.

The record of their lives wasn’t that long for this father and his sons. This family didn’t get the opportunity to reap the benefits, prosperity and freedoms for which they so nobly fought, bled and died. They attempted to make a difference in their world… and they did, but at the greatest human cost possible. These men demonstrated the fact that, in combat and so many other areas, life can’t be about “me, me, me.”

I can’t think of any other single family that has given so much for our liberties. I also can’t comprehend what economic, emotional and psychological stresses and burdens that wife and mother had to endure while experiencing the travesty of seeing her entire family destroyed by the tragedy of war.

Our national history, to the current day, has been impacted forever by the dangers, horrors and unsettling events that the Brawler family and their comrades-in-arms faced during that incredibly dangerous and devastating era. In the beginning, none of them could have predicted the miseries that would come.

Now all of these fighters have faded away, like evening shadows, after their active commitment to a cause larger than themselves.

In a letter to his wife, Abigail, John Adams wrote, “Posterity! You will never know how much it cost the present generation to preserve your freedom! I hope you will make good use of it. If you do not, I shall repent in heaven that I ever took half the pains to preserve it.”

Every day and night, Americans now work and sleep in peace because of men and women most have never met who aren’t afraid to fight for what they believe in.

Thomas Jefferson had an appropriate opinion about a country when he wrote, “If a nation expects to be both ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and will never be.”

Never forget
As a retired U.S. Army veteran who flew nearly 1,000 “Dustoff” missions in Viet Nam, I believe it’s important to never forget what our forefathers/foremothers endured and fought for during the American Revolution. This includes the millions of soldiers who later donned a uniform in peacetime, or during our many other wars, so that we could enjoy ourselves in peace and prosperity on this special day. For many who’ve experienced combat, war had a way of consuming their lives before they had an opportunity to live them. Their personal contributions during cataclysmic battles can be summed up by an anonymous scribe: “Do all the good you can, for all the people you can, while you can.”

It’s been said that a man does not die until he is forgotten. We should be appreciative of the service, suffering and sacrifices of all our military veterans, who’ve gone before or are still standing guard on that proverbial “wall,” making this nation the shining city on a hill that it has always been in this often dark, deranged and dangerous world.

Their legacy of heroic deeds should inspire a heart of gratitude in everyone. Their lives are monumental gifts that should never disappear from our country’s conscience.

Previous generations, this current generation, our children, and all those who shall come hereafter, have benefitted and will continue to benefit from their commitment, courage and patriotism.

Remembering gives true meaning to their warrior spirits.

Although many veterans are torn by the moral dilemmas of combat, and close friends and loved ones may not always understand or appreciate what we’ve endured, each of us has more to be thankful for than ever before. This is true because, in those cataclysmic days, we lived on the very edge of life and death. That heightened every experience. Now we can appreciate our lives to a greater extent since we know what we’ve survived.

A greater cause
In past decades, our nation has shaken its veterans around like dice in a cup and spilled us over foreign lands and historic battlefields that have encompassed nearly every part of Earth. We’ve learned to live with fear on a daily basis without letting it destroy or stop us. During all of this upheaval, few of us thought much about making history. We just wanted to get it over with and go home.

Those days produced camaraderie on a rare scale, the extent of which, after these many years, is easy to recall. These war and peacetime military experiences were so strong that they neutralized, for most, the differences in our ages, races, social classes, religions and areas of origin. Whether shoulder-to-shoulder in a war zone, on fire guard at night in basic training barracks or flight crews in aircraft, we had each others’ backs. It was a comforting realization that has been difficult to duplicate out of uniform.

A great many lost their innocence in combat. But there we learned that one thing is of greater importance to us than any other: the desire to live one more day and protect those we served with. We all had inherited that primal tribal instinct to survive, regardless the circumstances, especially when enemy fire stalked us like serial killers. Due to this fact, our world changed and will never be the same again.

It’s veterans like ourselves who have invested the most in the future of this nation and the values of freedom for which it stands. We’ve “done our time,” “paid our dues” and given the best years of our lives to this cause. And many, so very many, have been tasked with paying the highest price anyone could possibly pay.

Thinking back to 1969 and 1970, in and around Da Nang, South Viet Nam, there was a saying I will always remember. It was so popular, that it must have been on a sign that hung from nearly every hootch or was inscribed on every cigarette lighter in the country: “To really live, you must almost die. To those who have fought for it, life has a flavor the protected will never know.” That’s because their eyes had seen things their minds couldn’t forget and they continually had a thought in the back of their heads that, at some mesmerizing moment, they might have used up all of their living. A combat veteran understands the full significance of those statements.

It’s imperative that our military members — living or dead — not be forgotten. An incredible number of our soldiers never returned to their families alive or with all of their body parts, so that other buddies could return to theirs. By remembering them in this way, we immortalize them.

When the Great Scribe of years has placed the last period after the final word, and has blotted the page, perhaps he’ll say on behalf of each of us, “Here was an American veteran, someone involved in a cause greater than one’s self.”

In the final analysis, it has been the love of peace and our desire to keep our country and families safe that motivated most of the veterans I know to wear military uniforms while others enjoyed the fruits of freedom.

Life lessons
What I learned in Viet Nam provides a depth of experience that I couldn’t have gotten any other way. Something occurs in this greatest of all competitive arenas that simply can’t be comprehended from the stands. War taught me to be stronger than I thought I was. Those of us who were there have a responsibility to relate our stories and experiences so that younger generations can understand and be educated about the costs and responsibilities inherent in our freedoms and our nation’s security.

Being in combat — especially for foot soldiers who do the hardest and dirtiest work, under the ugliest of conditions, for the long-est periods of time, and make the most sacrifices — means there’s virtually no job security. If they’re still alive in the morning, their reward is yet another mission that will put them eye-to-eye with the enemy.

Fighting in the jungle, they tramped along in monsoon rain, filthy with mud, inundated with blood-sucking leeches, poisonous snakes and surrounded by clouds of mosquitoes, not to mention a wily, tough and determined enemy who was perpetually setting up ambushes, mines and booby traps to test their will, motivation and ability to survive.

We medevac flight crews saw how they lived and functioned, what they had to endure, and there wasn’t anything we wouldn’t do to give them a fighting chance to survive if they were wounded.

I’ve been front-row-center for a lot of devastating action and often had an unrestricted close-up view of unspeakable battlefield carnage where unexpected, life-changing events swirled around everyone like fog in a rainstorm. That is where a soldier realizes in a flash of awareness that harm and death don’t befall just the wicked. These visions of violence are not cherished highlights in anyone’s memory bank.

The real champions of our nation’s wars have been those men and women who innately understood the horrendous risks, and left their safe havens in an attempt to serve their country and its freedoms. These were freedoms that so many of them would never get an opportunity to experience or enjoy once they raised their right hand and took their enlistment oath.

These patriots knew there would be little glory and no glamour, only darkness, destruction, disease, dismemberment and death. But still they went, willing to swim into piranha-infested waters or no-holds-barred confrontations to do their duty like the Jacob Brawler family and Clark Poling so long ago.

A day seldom passes, either in the silent darkness of night or the first glow of morning, when I don’t reflect on or recall similar events from my generation’s war and my other service years. Sometimes these experiences, both unique and devastating, seep into my brain drop by drop. Drips and drops collect and, before I realize what’s happening, suddenly there’s a puddle I have to deal with.

Each new generation is tasked to take up the banner of safeguarding our nation and to derive the necessary sense of obligation from memories, stories and records of military veterans who have gone before. That’s why David’s encounter with Goliath will never be forgotten, because it’s recorded in the Bible.

The legendary deeds of Odysseus during the Trojan War are remembered because of Homer’s writing.

So it’s essential and obligatory that America’s warriors be honored in speeches and articles, assuring that those whom they protected and served to the fullest measure of their devotion, unselfishness and duty will never forget their manifestation of love, duty, discipline and gallant courage.

Many years ago, I came across a quotation from a Christian Czech resistance fighter who was ultimately executed by the Nazis in WWII. Only one who truly understands the horror of war and the ethos of being a soldier could have composed it; his potent theme is one of the reasons I write.

“I ask for one thing of you who will survive this era: do not forget. Forget neither the good men nor the evil. Gather together patiently the testimonies about those who have fallen. One of these days the present will be the past, and people will speak of ‘the great evil’ and of the nameless heroes who shaped history.

“I should like it to be known that there were no nameless heroes, that these were men who had names, faces, desires and hopes, and that therefore the suffering of even the least of them was no smaller than the suffering of the foremost whose name endures in memory. I wish that they may remain close to you, like acquaintances, like kinsmen, like yourselves.”

For the record, on Veterans Day or any other day, I couldn’t possibly forget. I’m tempted to get up and stand in front of my fireplace, to keep the flames and embers of memory alive for a few more minutes, but I’ve remembered too much already.

The evening is nearly gone, morning will soon arrive, and my road map of feelings and memories from the past will once again have to be set aside for a little while.