Ten years in the U.S. Air Force have made me look differently at the news and feel differently on Memorial Day and Veterans Day. Memorial Day, of course, is to remember those who have fallen, but rarely do I attend a Memorial Day service any more at which there is not something done to honor both serving troops and veterans. As the armed forces medley was played at the service Sunday night in our nation’s capital, there was still a thrill, even sitting in my living room, when I heard “Off we go, into the wild blue yonder . . .”
When a civilian hears about a troubled spot in the world, he or she will often think about the grave hardship for those who are in that situation. If it’s one that might involve U. S. forces, there is perhaps a moment of wondering whose son or daughter is headed off to help deal with the situation. But for ten years when I heard about certain trouble spots, such as Grenada, Panama, and then Iraq in the first gulf war, I knew to pack my bags and wait for the telephone call that would surely follow. There’s a big difference in the way you think about it when you are going to pack your bags.
Now don’t get me wrong. My service was not some incredible series of hardships. As I was telling my wife, I was very anxious to go. It was what I had trained for and I wanted to do it! In fact, I had it rather light, compared to what our young people are going through in Iraq and Afghanistan right now. But what I did doesn’t even compare. I tell my family that I had the right perspective on war, assuming one has to be in it–looking down from about 32,000 or so feet. As an aircrew member (not pilot or flight crew, but working on an aircraft), I didn’t have to slog through sand hoping I didn’t encounter an IED, nor was I under hostile fire. But my experience gave me some extra sympathy.
I remember a call from my best friend’s wife after the first gulf war. I had been so lucky as to be rotated out of Saudi Arabia before Desert Storm. I got back in the war in another area, and I will say simply that it was the lap of luxury by comparison. My best friend, on the other hand, stayed in Saudi Arabia and was extended for some time. New housing for which they had been waiting for months had become available and she had to move before he would return. Those of us at our unit who were back home managed to move her, and I got the task of assembling the kids’ swing set. The best I can say of that was that it stayed together!
That word “extension” meant something different to her than it does to most people who watch television. It meant her husband wasn’t there to help with the move. It meant a son who was crying because he saw other people’s daddies coming home and wondered when his daddy was coming home. We hear things like, “Tours of duty will be extended 3 months,” (or 6 months, or whatever), and often we don’t think of the impact of that word on people’s lives. It’s not at all like having your boss tell you that you need to stay on a project you don’t like for a few extra months. To a serviceman, that’s three more months of danger for you, three more months of fear for your family, three more months for your finances to fall into disaster, three more months for your home to deteriorate, three more months of loneliness, and three more months of weariness. Yet you’ll do it, because you signed up for it, and it’s what you do.
Back home people will appreciate the things you do mostly with words and mostly on holidays. I don’t mean to belittle words and special holidays. The moments in these various services and commemorations are important, but they are only words unless they become motivators to drive us to do better.
I wrote a devotional for my wife’s list in which I asked whether we really thought that love, as defined in 1 Corinthians 13, was the sort of thing we talked about and wanted to listen to. To be honest, I don’t think it is. In that post I talked about a question my pastor asked on Sunday, about our view of celebrities and heroes. When we’re asked, we talk about how much we honor our heroes, but our actions show that we really care more about celebrities. The way you can tell is by checking what we listen to, what we watch, what we talk about, and where our money goes.
It’s important that we think about this, because whatever happens in Iraq at this point, we are going to need our armed forces for some time to come. Terrorism isn’t over. We haven’t run out of rogue governments that will sponsor terrorist activity. The tendency for the civilian population is to forget about the troops quickly after wars. Right now, even with fighting going on, we are behaving in this country as though the war is over. There is the sense among many that if we can just get the troops home from Iraq, that will be it.
But the state of the world is analogous to a ticking time bomb. It is not a matter of if we will again be the target of a terrorist attack, but of when. And when that happens we need to be ready to respond defensively, and ready to take action when appropriate targets present themselves. It is very easy for those who have opposed the war in Iraq (as I do) to slip into the assumption that this is it, that everything else can be solved through purely diplomatic means. But there are no purely diplomatic means. Diplomats only succeed because there are some unsung heroes holding the weapons of war. Even when diplomacy prevents a war, you can thank the folks who were willing to fight it. Nobody is stopped diplomatically where there is no force to back up the talks.
To honor the troops we need to pay them better, equip them better, train them better, provide them better medical care, and honor them not just for a few moments at a time, or for a few weeks after they come home, but for the long term. You don’t have to pack your bags and flee from your home, because there are thousands of young men and women who will pack their bags and voluntarily head toward where the trouble is.
A few moments of singing and talking doesn’t thank them enough for all that. If you don’t believe me, you go tiptoe through the minefields in a desert half way around the world. As I said, I’ve never done that. I had to go, but my life was comparatively comfortable. But I’m terribly thankful to this folks who have done it, or are doing it, or will be soon.