I was watching a live Facebook feed of the graduation of one of our parish’s young lads at Airborne School at Ft. Benning, Georgia, the other day, and couldn’t help but reminisce of those days of young adulthood … walking those same fields and flight lines several decades ago, leaping from perfectly good airplanes, strutting with swelled chest (and swelled head), parading freshly-earned jump wings. And this old jarhead also can’t help swell with pride (and no little envy) at two other of our young lads who will be attending USMC Officer Candidates School this summer, as well as another going into the Navy in the near future—Special Warfare Combat-Craft Crewman training after boot camp, no less. Ah … the adventure of youth.
Now, any military spouse, relative or friend will warn you that when veterans get together, there can be ceaseless (and, no doubt for lifelong civilians, wearisome) conversation about military glory days—comparing notes, inevitable good-natured and comradely one-upmanship, inter-service rivalry, etc. But the shared trials, hardships and experiences of military service unite all veterans and the currently-serving with a special bond—especially those who have served in areas of combat and conflict.
This is something veterans and family members recall most keenly this weekend as we observe Memorial Day, remembering the brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, fathers and mothers who did not return. Certainly, our thoughts and prayers go to all the families of those who have lost loved ones in the Armed Forces or in any service to the people of the nation or of local communities.
I have no experience of losing a family member in a conflict, and so I honor those who have suffered such a loss all the more. My grandfather served in the trenches of France in World War I, but he came back safe and … well, sort of sound, having been removed from service after exposure to a gas attack; he never could swallow easily because of the damage done. Otherwise, the family hasn’t lost anyone in combat since the Civil War—Antietam, I think. My great aunt used to have a long-passed-on letter written by him a couple of days before he died describing the battlefield carnage of that war.
Now that we’re in graduation season, there are so many things that we older folks would love to impart to the graduates—the rewards of hard work, the fulfillment of always striving ahead, the many joys—and sorrows—that come into each life, and yet the contentment that comes with what will be their burgeoning family and circle of friends. But certainly, never to be forgotten is the sacrifice of those who have suffered and even died so that we might be able to have the very comfortable existence in which we live in this nation.
How easy it is for us to forget sacrifice, whether it be that of parents and family, of teachers and mentors, of police and firefighters who risk their lives daily for our protection, and that of the military in battles so far removed from our shores. But that “far away” trait is itself a benefit our citizens have enjoyed for a very long time, earned by the blood, sweat and tears of those who go to serve us. Imagine what it would be like to live in Israel and be literally surrounded by external threats, with nearby countries having sworn to seek your tiny nation’s destruction. Or in South Korea with literally hundreds of artillery pieces aimed at you on your northern border. Or in Ukraine or Crimea with Russia breathing down your neck flexing its muscle. Or in one of many other places which live daily under threat of military invasion and war. On the other hand, whatever our disagreements with Canada or Mexico, we have little fear that they’re going to mount a military invasion … and, to our own nation’s credit, despite the vast differences in military might, neither are those countries concerned about us invading them.
The old saw goes that “freedom isn’t free”, and the history of the world certainly bears that out. Sadly, the historical norm of the world is not freedom, liberty and peace, but rather always having to resist the inexorable tide of oppression, autocracy and war. So, our men and women are the living bulwark behind which we and many other countries and regions enjoy peace and security … serving, and not seeking to be served. Thus, copious thanks are owed to our men and women in uniform, and respect and remembrance to those who failed to return, and for their families, for as Christ said: “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13) Yes, give thanks for the memories—of peace and security in our nation rather than of plague, famine and war.
So, young graduates, be ever thankful that you’ve not had to live under serious threat. But as another old saying goes, those who forget history are doomed to repeat it, and if anything in history repeats itself, it is the cycle of conflict and war. So, learn from the past and discern ways to prevent such tragedies, for soon YOU will be in charge of our nation’s welfare … and, as scripture advises us: “There is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9)
So, one of the best pieces of advice you can receive is to always hope and work for the best outcome, and yet be prepared for the worst; having a backup plan (or two, or three) is always wise. Hopeful naïveté rarely ends well, so—to borrow from Jesus—we: “…send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16) … yet also: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” (Matthew 5:9)