“A soldier feels a sense of connection to his country that is like few other things. That connection is to current events, but to the lives of past soldiers as well. Being a soldier can be a form of living history.”
When I left the 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry, and the Robert E. Lee Barracks in Mainz-Gonsenheim, Germany, I returned my service revolver to the arms room and never looked back. It was with a sense of duty, family tradition and adventure that I had entered the post Vietnam Army. My enlistment was finished, I resigned my commission and like many soldiers turned civilian, my main interest was in getting back to “normal,” whatever that was.
A soldier feels a sense of connection to his country that is like few other things. That connection is to current events, but to the lives of past soldiers as well. Being a soldier can be a form of living history. For example, many of us are familiar with Lieutenant General George Patton from the movie starring George C. Scott. When I stood at Patton’s grave in the Luxembourg American Cemetery and Memorial there was a personal connection. I learned a history I had not known. He died in a car accident after the war and his life seemed visceral, real…he was one of us. His actual life story, considered among the American soldiers laid to rest in Luxembourg, was real in a way no movie ever could be.
Words seem inadequate to describe the feeling I had when visiting the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial at Colleville-sur-Mer in France. I was traveling with some friends from Iowa and we went to Omaha Beach and Pointe-du-hoc, where the United States Army Ranger Assault Group scaled the 100 foot cliff under enemy fire. It is hard to believe the courage it took for these men to make the assault that was D-Day. The remains of 9,287 Americans are buried at Normandy. What moved me was that so many grave markers indicated deaths within such a short period, buried at the site of the battle. The lives of these men embody the notion of devotion to country.
The Andersonville, Georgia National Cemetery is where some Civil War dead are buried. This cemetery is active with veterans and their dependents continuing to be interred there. Andersonville is a part of our history that is often forgotten. Some 45,000 Union soldiers were confined at Camp Sumter during its 14 month existence. More than 13,000 of them died “from disease, poor sanitation, malnutrition, overcrowding, and exposure to the elements.” It was an ignoble death for a soldier and emblematic is the large number of graves marked “unknown” at Andersonville. It saddens us that citizens activated to serve the cause of preserving the union ended up this way. It seems like such a waste in an era when we have knowledge that proper public health procedures and basic sanitation could have prevented many of these deaths.
A friend of mine in Davenport kept the bullet that killed a relative during the Civil War on a “whatnot” in her living room. It was a constant reminder of the sacrifices servicemen and women make when they put on a uniform. It is also a reminder that defense of the common good is no abstraction.
On this Memorial Day, it is worth the effort to consider those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country and pay them respect. People and organizations are decorating cemeteries with American flags, reminding us that military service is not about images and speeches. It is about the decision individuals make that there is something more important than themselves and that from time to time it is worth giving one’s life to defend the common good.