Monday, May 26, 2014

For the Fallen

I have to admit, I don't know a lot about war. Not on the traditional battlefield, anyway. Not in a place where IEDs are a way of life, where machine gun fire is common, where friends can turn out to enemies in the blink of an eye. Not in a place where lives are at stake every day. Not where a sense of duty is enough of a reason to make a man stand up in the morning.

No, I don't know a lot about war.

I have had the opportunity in my life to work around soldiers. I have taken the time to learn to read rank on a uniform (Army) because it shows a man that I'm trying to take an interest, though I will never understand. As a chaplain, one of my most humbling conversations came not with a patient, but her husband - a WWII veteran who had never, he said, told his story to anyone but sat in that empty hospital room telling it to me, with tears streaming down his face while we waited on his wife to return from a procedure. 

I have military in my family. One of my uncles is career military. Army. Another uncle, Army National Guard. My grandfather was an army chaplain; I wish I'd known that before I read it in his obituary. Countless others whose stories I don't know, whose service I could not pin down except to say that I've seen them here or there in photos, standing proudly in their dress uniforms.

The truth is, I'm not sure I could tell you any of their stories. Of all of the soldiers I have been blessed to know, of those I have been honored to spend time with, of those I even know well, there is one common thread about them: they don't really share their stories.

For all the forward, antagonistic, defiant things we post on Facebook in "support" of our soldiers, I've never heard a soldier once remind me, or anyone else, of his service. Not once. I have never seen soldiers declare a sense of entitlement about anything. I haven't seen a man in uniform standing in line at a fast food joint, then turn to the person behind him and say, "Dude. I FOUGHT for you! You OWE me this burger." I have never seen a veteran use his service for his own gain. I have seen wounded warriors honored, and they all bring it back to the man. "This is the greatest day in my life. It's such a dream come true to be here," says the man in the wheelchair who hasn't been fit for prosthetics yet, the biggest smile on his face.

Most of our soldiers don't say anything at all about their service. I wish they would. I wish they would share with us the weight of their burden, the magnitude of their memory, the torment of a soul torn between being the creation of a peace-loving God and yet, being called to fight in war. I wish they would tell us more, but they don't see their service as any big thing; it's just what they do.

Our soldiers are defined by grace, by humility, and by quiet.

And perhaps it is the quiet that most gets me. Because what I do understand is just how loud war can be. I think about these men and women over there, bombs going off. Sirens going off. Chatter over here, chatter over there. Guns firing both on the practice range and over the hill. Helicopters flying in and out. The din of the mess hall as guys come in and out, sharing their stories and their hopes and their dreams, only to have them interrupted again by the sounds of war. I think about protesters and rioters and people who resent our troops being in their country. Enemies and common men alike who live in the war zone, but, like me, do not understand the war. Because to them, it's just tearing their neighborhood apart. It's tearing their community apart.

...And those back home who are torn apart, too. When boots come home but bodies don't. When the chaplain shows up on your doorstep and you don't know how long you can keep him from telling you the terrible news. When communities are wrought with grief and mourning for the young man, the young woman who did not return. Who never made it out of the noise.

Which is why, I think, the ways we remember our fallen soldiers are so powerful. We are a culture that has stopped slowing down for funeral processions. We are a culture that's so bombarded by the headlines that we don't even notice reports from the front lines any more. We are a culture who flips right past the story of the fallen soldier to see what's "worth watching" on television tonight. We are a culture that, half a breath into a moment of silence, begins to fidget. Starts to cough. Starts watching the clock, wondering just how long a moment is.

But give us the first notes of Taps, and we fall silent. All the noise, all the world...everything stops. 

Present arms in a 21-gun salute, and we don't even breathe.

And I think, how fitting. That for men and women who died quietly in the midst of a noise most of us will never understand, that we remember them in a moment of quiet. That we remember the fallen of war in a moment of peace. That for all the days they wished this all would just stop, on their final day, it does stop. For just a moment. In honor of them.

Today, as we gather around our grills, kick back with our families, dive into our pools, and enjoy the blessing of tremendous freedom, may we remember that it has come at a cost. And may we take a moment to embrace the quiet.

For all the men and women who died in the noise.

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