I got the news via e-mail. The son of a close friend and former navy colleague had been killed in action near Kandahar in Afghanistan. The stark message shattered my emotional defenses utterly. Gravity suddenly seemed overwhelmingly powerful. I put my head down on the desk as grief and memories washed through my mind and heart.
I remembered a little tow-headed boy running around at squadron picnics and softball games. A happy little boy, somehow in love with stock car racing at seven and filled to bursting with NASCAR facts, figures, names and places.
The little boy was 28 when he died. Twenty-eight? The juxtaposition of memory and reality rocked me with perspective. Twenty-eight with a wife and two young daughters. The sudden, savage grief I felt for a little boy of memory and a family I had never met was wrenching, to say the least.
I thought about the boy’s mother, who I served with on and off over a dozen or so years in the 1980’s and 1990’s. We were, and remain, great friends. I could scarcely imagine the shock and grief she and her family were experiencing. Years of closely held memories played across the big screen of my mind as a bittersweet admixture of joy and pain flowed through my heart.
Gradually I began to wonder about the power of my own shock and grief. I had fooled myself, I realized, into thinking I could shield myself emotionally from the consequences of our now decade-long war. During my time of active service I lost far too many friends and suffered more than my share of grief. I’d done my bit and had the medals and scars to prove it. I told myself that it was someone else’s turn. Intellectually I supported our fighting men and women and their mission absolutely. But emotionally – emotionally I would sit this one out. I’d done my part.
I raised my head from the desk. Hours had passed, night had come, my house was dark. I realized then the terrible truth. In attempting to shield myself from emotional pain, I had turned my heart away from my fellow warriors just when they needed me the most. It was an act of utter cowardice. The realization burned like fire.
Jumbled words from John F. Kennedy’s 1961 Inaugural Address tumbled through my mind. I quickly pulled up the text of the speech on my computer.
“…We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans--born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage--and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.
“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights…to which we are committed today at home and around the world.
we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship…to assure the survival and success of liberty.
“In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course. Since this country was founded, each generation of Americans has been summoned to give testimony to its national loyalty. The graves of young Americans who answered the call to service surround the globe.
“Now the trumpet summons us again--not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need--not as a call to battle, though embattled we are-- but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, "rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation"--a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself.”
in your hands...
summoned to give testimony...
to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle…
I thought back to the sacred oath of service to country I took so many years ago, when I swore to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, and that I would bear true faith and allegiance to the same. That oath, it occurred to me, had no expiration date. That I am not presently called on to fight is irrelevant. My sworn duty remains. I swore to bear true faith and allegiance to the constitution, to that founding document which explains in simple and majestic terms the idea of America. The idea I believe in with all my mind and heart, not because someone told me I must, but because I realized even as a young man the truth and the power of those words and in that idea.
Just as I had shamefully turned my heart from my fellow warriors, so too had I turned my heart from true faith and allegiance to America, turned my heart against my own sacred oath.
I had gone far off course, I realized, and I knew that the path of brutal self-honesty was the only way forward. Seeing and understanding the stark reality of my failure allowed me clearly see the path I must take to regain the road of true faith and allegiance and service to America. More Kennedy:
“In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger…The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it--and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.
“And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country.
“My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.
“Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us here the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God's work must truly be our own.”
One of the things I can do for my country – one of the many but perhaps one of the most important – is to turn my heart back to my fellow warriors and to this nation. To bear the burden of grief, to pay the price I swore to pay so many years ago. This I have done, and strangely, while my heart is heavy with grief, the fear which prompted me to hide in cowardice is gone. I have been summoned once again, as Kennedy put it, to give testimony to my national loyalty. I nearly failed the test, but in the end I did not fail.
There’s an old saying that when a man or woman joins the military, they are signing a blank check to the government for the amount of up to and including their life. This saying is essentially true, but in reality, they are signing those checks not to some nebulous “government,” but to me and you and every citizen of this nation. We’ve each of us been cashing those checks for the last decade. We are each of us faced with a choice, a choice no one can make for us. We can either bear the burden of cashing those checks or we can turn away from paying such a heavy price. But turning away comes with a cost, too. Freedom isn’t free. Not for any of us.