On Memorial Day we are called to honor American heroes and their gifts of sacrifice to us: fallen soldiers of every war; heroes of the civil rights movement; and our police and firefighters. So, too, we honor our own ancestors buried in cemeteries across the land—for they preserved the home front for each of us. On this Memorial Day, I will also remember a young man whose name I do not know.
This spring, Jean and I traveled to our nation’s capital with two of our grandchildren. On the way we stopped for lunch. Shortly after we were seated, a family took a table several feet away. When their food arrived, the mother assisted her son in eating his meal. He was a young man – from my perspective, still a boy really – in his early 20s. He was missing an arm and both of his legs. His skull, covered with closely cropped hair, was marked by several large scars. There could be no doubt that his injuries came in combat.
I was completely transfixed by the scene and was probably guilty of staring, as my mind was racing. First, I realized sharply my neglect of our wounded soldiers. I know on Memorial Day we honor those who have given all they could offer, their lives, for the benefit of our country. But consider the wounded and their caretakers – do they not give in near-equal measure? Second, on looking at this young man, I had one repeating thought. Almost with the rapidity of a metronome set on march tempo, I kept thinking that this young man must love me – a stranger. He must have loved all of us in that room; how else could he have sacrificed so very much!
I have read that some who volunteer for combat do so for highly personalized motives – to protect their family; to sustain and enrich the values of our country as a repayment of sorts for the rare opportunity to live life in America. But is either motive enough to sustain a strong personal commitment to the overseas mission?
As to the commitment, some claim that it would be impossible to put yourself into such a risky undertaking if you believed you could perish. The recruit, they expect, takes the next step by believing that it’s always another soldier who will be killed or wounded, never he himself, never her herself. But can that really be enough to convince one to go into battle? Read Erich Maria Remarque’s World War I novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, and you realize that no one could maintain such an illusion of the safe separation of self from another warrior, when both occupy the same hellish theatre.
Thus, at some level of a soldier’s consciousness, in some chamber of his or her psyche, must reside a stark realization, not just a rationalization, that chance does not ordain his or her own survival. Yet, regardless of how complex the array of emotions that form the underpinnings of our coping mechanism, more than truth must sustain the fighter. Looking at this young man so grievously wounded, I could only believe that love gives that sustenance.
What else could fuel his sacrifice? William Broyles, Jr. answers that “The enduring emotion of war, when everything else has faded, is comradeship. A comrade in war is a man you can trust with anything, because you trust him with your life. . . . Individual possessions and advantage count for nothing: the group is everything. What you have is shared with your friends. It isn’t a particularly selective process, but a love that needs no reasons, that transcends race and personality and education–all those things that would make a difference in peace. It is, simply, brotherly love.”
And what motivates the parents, spouses, and children of these remarkable men and women who fight for our freedoms? They may not formally enlist, but in ways as personal as any, they are also defending our way of life and sharing in the sacrifice of these young fighters who are today the focus of their love and compassion.
That day near Washington, I saw that the face of the mother at the nearby table was gently contoured by the power love imbued in her as she accepted her son’s profound sacrifice. A stoical affect radiated from this woman as she cared for her son—I felt she would make it through his ordeal with him on every day to come. Where would my emotions have taken me, I wondered then, if I were called to be my son’s caregiver in her stead? Over the breathless weeks and months of waiting at home, does the vigil of parents whose children are called to our nation’s service prepare them for moments like this–aiding an adult son in this restaurant? I may never know. But this woman, caring that day must live her life now on a plane of understanding only offered to those whose children are called to service and to all the consequences that may entail.
William Broyles, in the same article, adds that “There [are] no metaphors that connect war to everyday life,” and in the same way I do not believe there are any metaphors for the sacrifices of caregivers like the mother of this wounded hero. Their loving kindness is incommensurate. We simply stand in awe and respect for their noble actions in and of themselves, simple and true.
On this Memorial Day, I will be thinking of that young man, and of the countless others just as brave and heroic, and I will thank the Lord that each so loved their life in America, their comrades in the field, their duty to the mission, and each of us here at home!
Special thanks to my dear friend and editor Linda Hobson Ph.D. who contributed to this essay.