I am blessed. I have never seen war. Yet wars serve as milestones in my life.
My favorite uncle fought in World War One, and I treasure a picture of him in uniform. I never asked him what it was like to leave rural Arkansas and head overseas. I imagine it was quite an adventure.
I was born just after WWII. My father was 4-F. I might not be here if he hadn’t put a pea in his ear as a child, only to have it fester and destroy his eardrum. The military rejected him as they couldn’t protect him against a gas attack. They were still fighting the last war, a chronic challenge to every commander.
I have no recollection of Korea, as I was quite young.
In Vietnam, I lost my hero, Russell Barnett, who was a fighter pilot. I was the flower girl in his wedding and mourn his loss to this day. He was larger than life to me. One night, when I was five, he carried me outside, and pointed to the full moon, “See that, Dixie? I’m going to fly there one day.” I believed him.
I lost my innocence forever when he was reported missing and presumed dead, just before Easter, when I was nineteen. His plane was hit and exploded in mid-air. No other pilots saw parachutes. At his memorial service, I came undone when they played “Taps” for him. “All is well,” the lyrics say, but all is never well when you hear “Taps.” When Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, Russell was three years dead. Forty years from the date of his death, I learned his remains had been found.
During Vietnam, I saw good people go, and good people refuse to go. To this day, I do not know who was right. I saw friends who sailed through, and others who barely limped along.
I worried over friends’ sons in Bosnia, but all came through safely.
During the First Gulf War, I learned one of the families in my pediatric practice feared for their cousins who’d been drafted into the Iraqi army. That very afternoon, I learned that another of my families, expats working in Kuwait, lost everything they had when Saddam invaded. Luckily they were away on vacation, or they, too, would have been hostages like her father was. There I was, safely tucked away in Houston. That day taught me that we are all linked together in our humanity; I could fear for the cousins AND for the expat family. Caring humans are on each side of a war, often dragged in against their wills.
Now, we have family at stake in Afghanistan and we are terrified.
A few years back, my husband and I visited the American Cemetery on Omaha Beach in Normandy. Talk about an emotional punch. You know it will be tough, but it is tough and beautiful at the same time. The French gave us the land (it is US soil) and ten thousand Americans rest there for eternity below the green, green grass. Stand in the center, and, as far as the eye can see, you watch white Crosses and white Stars of David march in perfect order. Of course, your eyes can’t really see, as you are crying too hard. Lincoln’s phrase, “last full measure of devotion” is a euphemism for the guys who were gut-shot, drowned, blown to bits by mines and killed a hundred different ways. Why? So that the East Coast wouldn’t speak German and the West Coast, Japanese.
Service to one’s country is noble. Veterans know things that the rest of us don’t. They live their words, and all too often, they die their words. No matter what branch, all mottoes come down to those of West Point’s.
Duty. Honor. Country.
Thank you, veterans, for seeing me through my life without war on our soil. I will remember you. Forever. No matter what your age, you are eternally young, forever strong. You will always be Russell, holding me up and pointing to the full moon. You have not only defended my dreams, you have created them. Thank you.