This is, by far, the most powerful and profound of all essays I’ve read which praised our military veterans. Retired LTC Robert Robeson wrote about our veterans and their sacrifices – citing examples from the Revolutionary War and elsewhere through time. It’s a piece I feel appropriate for this Memorial Day and invite you all to read through it.
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 of approaching winter are whipping smoke in swirls around my fireplace outlet. Inside, near the toasty warmth of flickering flames, I recline on a sofa and reflect on times that are far in the past. This includes military friends and comrades still surviving and those who are no longer here. November 11th has a habit of doing that to an aged Viet-Nam combat veteran.
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 the wound. 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 have borne the greatest wounds and psychological scars of these conflicts on nearly every continent of our world. 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 either volunteered or were drafted during 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 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. Or it could be a 2 1/2-ton truck driver volunteering to gamble his life transporting ammunition and other critical supplies to besieged troops over often-mined roads and through frequent ambush 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.
One prime example that has always inspired me occurred just a few months after my birth. It involved four Army chaplains: two Protestants, one Catholic and one Jewish. They knowingly sacrificed their own lives to help save some of the other 904 men on board the S.S. Dorchester, a troop transport sunk by a Nazi U-boat off the coast of Greenland on February 3, 1943. Without regard for their own fates, these chaplains helped quiet those who were panicking, assisted in helping to build rafts and gave away their own lifejackets as the stricken ship disappeared beneath frigid Atlantic waves.
One of these chaplains, 1LT Clark V. Poling, had written his father earlier. “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 chaplains were obviously more than “adequate.”
As one example from this country’s illustrious military history, many Americans may not be aware that there were approximately 25,000 of our patriots killed during the Revolutionary War while thousands of others 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 others, 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. The Jacob Brawler family, from South Carolina, 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.
Our national history, to the current day, has been impacted forever by the dangers, horrors and unsettling events that this 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 were to come. Now all of these fighters have faded away, like evening shadows, after their active commitment to a cause larger than themselves.
John Adams wrote a letter to his wife, Abigail. In it he said, “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.
The media have shown us innumerable examples of those who view military service as something almost beneath them. These are the ones who’ve always put self-interest above public service. They believe it’s some other person’s son or daughter who should sacrifice and be personally responsible for their safety and supposed “rights.” Perhaps that’s why our all-volunteer force now composes less than 0.5 percent of the U.S. population. I wonder what all those who lie silent and still beneath those stark white crosses, in every part of our planet, would have to say about that if they had the opportunity.
There’s no doubt that all wars are madness and so bizarre, to the participants, as to be almost unbelievable most of the time. Yet wars are generally fought by men and women of courage and commitment. The ashes of these conflicts often glow with unforgettable memories of the dedication and hope that, for some reason, are able to come forth from these nightmares.
Although many veterans are torn by the moral dilemmas of combat, and close friends and loved ones may not always understand and 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 either 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 this camaraderie, after these many years, is easy to recall. These wars 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 within our country. Whether shoulder-to-shoulder in a war zone, on fireguard 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 of 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 is 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.
I only hope God will renew the perceptions of all Americans on this Veterans Day and help us realize what we have been blessed with. Some have had our freedoms for so long that it appears to have become too familiar. Many Americans have ceased to appreciate their value. Some of the young seem to overlook the basic fact that they have inherited peace. It wasn’t their health or their lives that were sacrificed. It wasn’t their educations that were interrupted. It wasn’t their families that were broken up for various lengths of time to provide this peace. No, that was older generations…generations that know what it’s like to “pass through the eye of a needle.”
Thinking back to 1969 and 1970, in and around Da Nang, South Viet-Nam, there was a sign I will always remember. It was so popular it must have been hanging in nearly every hootch or been inscribed on every cigarette lighter in the country.
It’s imperative that our military members not be forgotten, whether living or dead. Incredible numbers of these 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.
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.
What I learned in Viet-Nam provides a depth of experience 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 conditions, for the longest periods of time, and make the most sacrifices–means there’s virtually no job security. If they’re still alive in the morning, they get to go on another mission that continuously puts them eye-to-eye with the enemy on some remote jungle trail. They tramp along in monsoon rain, filthy with mud, inundated with blood-sucking leeches, surrounded by clouds of mosquitoes, poisonous snakes, and a wily, tough and determined enemy perpetually setting up ambushes, mines and booby traps to test their wills, 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.
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 past their teen years, once they raised their right hands and took their enlistment oaths. These patriots knew there would be little glory, 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 on this significant and special day. In this way, their manifestation of love, duty, discipline and gallant courage will never be allowed to be forgotten by those whom they protected and served to the fullest measure of their devotion, unselfishness and duty.
Many years ago, I came across a quotation from a Christian Czech Resistance Fighter who was ultimately executed by the Nazi’s in WWII. It was displayed in the back room of a pet shop in Aspen, Colorado. 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 why I write.
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, the 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.
This article was published in the June 2020 final issue of Military.