Friday, May 25, 2012

Remembering Those Who Have Served

In the 55 years of my life, I’ve watched quite a few war movies. When I was younger, they didn’t impact me the way they do now…perhaps because at this stage of my life I have begun to understand the sacrifice that is made by each and every person who puts on a military uniform and heads off to a war, or a police action, or whatever it is that governments decide to call it when they send human beings off to face the hell that is armed conflict. Over the last few weekends I’ve watched the Clint Eastwood movies, “Letters from Iwo Jima” and “Flags of our Fathers”, only to be reduced to tears, not only at the end of each story, but most of the way through them.

  I have always had an emotional response, no only to war movies, but each time I think of those who have put themselves in harm’s way so I can live the way I live in such a wonderful country. My heart fills with such gratitude that I can only express what I feel with tears, at least that is what I think it is. I know there is also a measure of sadness that comes over me as well, because to even be able to feel a little bit of what these people must have experienced is overwhelming to me.

I remember when I was 19….my mom, dad and I took a trip back to Washington DC. It was the year before the bi-centennial so many of the touristy places were closed or semi-closed for cleaning, repairing or something so they would be ready for the celebration that was to take place the following year. One of the days that we were there, we decided to visit one of the civil war battlefields at Manassas, VA. Even then, when I stepped out onto the battlefield, I felt such a sense of grief for what had gone on there. It was as if, on that quiet day, there was a solemn spirit in every tree, every bird….and on the wind, it carried the memory of what had happened there for every visitor to feel. I have never forgotten that day. Since then I have come to understand some of the terrible and frightful things that happened during that war. I have letters written home from a great-great grandfather who fought for the Union army that described his loneliness and how much he wanted to hear from his family. William Tecumseh Sherman said “War is hell” and on this day so many years later, I must say that I agree.

Six years ago I had the privilege of going to Hawaii to visit the Arizona memorial. The day I was there was December 6th and I was on the first launch that took visitors over to the memorial that day, so accompanying us was a compliment of servicemen from each branch of the service. Their task that day was to place a wreath on the memorial, so we had been instructed as to how to behave while the short ceremony was taking place. It was very moving, and of course I cried.

We’ve all seen the Pearl Harbor movies so are familiar with what happened and what the memorial looks like, but what I wasn’t prepared for was the understanding of what had happened for so many of those men. As I watched the movie that they show you before going over to the memorial, I saw, for probably the first time some original footage from the attack that you just don’t see in the movies or on TV. I saw men jumping into the water from burning ships….jumping into water covered with oil that was burning as well. Can you imagine what that is like? Can you imagine how frightening that must have been to not only jump into burning water, but to have to decide, while under the water, where you are going to surface for your next breath of air, when everything is on fire? Where is there a place on the surface that is safe to poke your head up, where you won’t breathe in flames or diesel fuel? For several brief moments I allowed myself to imagine….to feel what it might have been like for them and I was overwhelmed.

The sense of that moment stayed with me as we entered the launch and were taken over to the memorial. Once the wreath was placed, we were free to walk around the memorial, look at the pictures and visit the sanctuary where all the names of the missing and the dead were written on the walls. Again, it was a sobering time, but for me, although I was moved by the surroundings, I wasn’t as moved by the atmosphere as I was by several gentlemen who were standing quietly, searching the wall for the names of their buddies who had died on that day so many years ago. They had placed flowers on the memorial, but as they turned to go and walked past me, the pain in their eyes, the tears on their cheeks said more than words could ever say. As a counselor, I could see some of what was underneath and I cried for them as well. These men were never given any kind of emotional help, to allow them to process through the immense amount of emotion that must have come, not only from that day, but in the days after. The grief that comes from knowing people you served with, who were your family and had died so tragically…the guilt that sometimes comes from being a survivor….the shock of going through such an overwhelming series of events. Human beings aren’t prepared or equipped to go through that kind of thing alone, yet this generation of men did just that. My heart broke and still does for what they went through.

Then I had to recognize that these men were not the only ones who dealt with this kind of pain. There was the Korean War and Viet Nam. Each of these combat situations afforded the servicemen and women who served in them their own unique brand of trauma. I grew up during the Viet Nam war and I remember watching the news every night and listening to Dan Rather report on how many hundreds and thousands of men had died that particular day in the war. They don’t do that kind of thing now, but it was an every day event at the time. Viet Nam was an unpopular war and I remember how tragically the protestors took out their opposition to the war on the returning soldiers. They were cursed and spat upon, as if they had no feelings and didn’t need our acceptance and gratitude for what they had gone through. Yes, disagree with the government, but it was not necessary or appropriate to show such contempt and hatred for those who were coming home from their own versions of hell abroad.

From each of these wars, we had and still have generations of brave soldiers who live the trauma of war every day in their minds. It has not been until recently that any type of help was offered that could bring peace to the chaos of the PTSD as we call it now, or the shell shock as it was called in WWII or battle fatigue as it was referred to in the previous wars.

After watching these two movies about Iwo Jima, the horrors of war are brought to the silver screen in all their hideous glory and I cried again. I can’t even begin to explain why, except my heart continued to break for the pain it caused and there is still that overwhelming gratitude that I feel when I see what courage each one had to be able to do what they did. No, I didn’t know any of the soldiers who died in the Pacific theater, but my mother did. Many of her friends were killed on Iwo Jima, Guadal Canal and Saipan and I know from the stories that she told over my lifetime, she was not the same after their loss.

I think what touches my heart more than anything is that the men and women who presently serve and have served in our military understand, at least to some extent, what they are looking forward to when they serve in combat and they have chosen to do it anyway.  There is a caption on a picture of troops exiting a launch into the waters of Omaha says "Courage doesn't mean you aren't means you go anyway."  That says so much.

Yes, there was a time when joining the service wasn’t voluntary…I remember the draft as well as anyone my age, but the majority of them faced their duty with great grace. War is hell…just being in its presence changes people on a fundamental level. There is no one who goes through combat who comes out on the other side the same. I believe that is also what my tears are for. How do we, as civilians, ever repay someone for changing who they are, for bearing the pain of seeing someone you love get blown apart or die in your arms, for going through the “dark night of the soul” while we stay in the comfort of our homes and hear about it on the news? I just don’t know that we can, and that breaks my heart as well.

There was a line at the end of “Flags of our Fathers” that said, “Heros are something we create, something we need. It’s a way for us to understand what is almost incomprehensible… how people could sacrifice so much for us…but for my dad and these men, the risks they took, the wounds they suffered, they did that for their buddies. They may have fought for their country, but they died for their friends…for the man in front, for the man beside them, and if we truly wish to honor these men, we should remember them the way they really were…….

I have never served in the military, although I have people in my life who I care very much about who have. I’ve never been in combat, so I don’t know if this profound sentiment is just a line in a movie or if it represents what our troops really feel…..but as I watch snippets of history such as this, and feel the love in my heart for the people who are in my life that represent these special men who have fought and died for our nation, my heart fills with gratitude, I grieve for their loss, celebrate their lives…….and I cry.