May 29, 2011
This weekend is the official opening of summer, according to most people. It is a three day weekend filled with cookouts and beach trips and car races. School is winding down or finished for most students in Florida. Big movies are invading the multiplex. So it is easy to forget the point of this weekend. In America, we have three national holidays to recognize those who have sacrificed their lives for our freedom: Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Veteran's Day. We also have two unofficial holidays that bring the same reflection - September 11 and December 7 - and several smaller days like Armed Forces Day and Flag Day. You would think that our country would just be filled to the gills with appreciation for the military and other service groups.
But, somehow, it isn't that way. In recent years there has been a resurgence in these feelings of thanks - largely due to 9/11 and the military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. It wasn't too long ago, though, when it felt like Veteran's Day and Memorial Day just slipped by with nary a mention of what the point was. It also was easy when the country went through a long stretch of time without a major military conflict. It was normal to have a President with military service. Anyone remember how damaging it was to Dan Quayle when he was labeled a "draft dodger?" And that was one of the points against Bill Clinton, too, when he first ran. Now, though, it is more uncommon to have a veteran running for President. None of the major candidates over the last few elections, with the exception of Wesley Clark and John McCain, had military experience. Well, John Kerry did, but that somehow came across as a bad thing due to what happened with it. Obama, Bush, either Clinton, Romney, Palin, Huckabee, Gore, Edwards, Guiliani. None of them were of a military background. I'm not criticizing this - just stating facts. Most of the military actions - Kosovo, Somalia, Panama, First Gulf War - were smaller in scope and not seen with the same eyes as the larger wars in the past.
I have always been more sensitive to this, having a father who was one of those who served. He was a Marine and veteran of the Korean War. He earned a Purple Heart for being wounded in battle. He is buried in a Veteran's Cemetery in Vermont. I have spoken of this several times in this blog. This military service is one of the things I am the most proud of about my father - it always was. I learned to appreciate the sacrifice he made. It was easy to remember, since I saw it every day of his life. He lost the top joint of each of the fingers of his right hand to the frostbite that set it after a bullet struck him. He had scars on his neck and leg from shrapnel. His hearing was damaged from explosions. It was a living reminder. You couldn't really look at him and NOT remember. He rarely talked about it. But we knew enough from the few conversations he had.
The First Gulf War took place when I was a junior in high school. It was scary to me. I had grown up with the spectre of the Cold War looming over everything. There were nightly reports of the Soviet Union and the posturing between our countries. When the USSR fell, it felt like there was going to be peace. And then this war came along out of nowhere. I remember the fear was that this war was going to drag out. The last two conflicts were far from short - Vietnam and the Cold War. I was about to hit the draft age. There were several times my friends and I discussed this fact. And it hit close to home when a friend of mine from Debate Club enlisted and was sent to Iraq. He was dating the sister of one of my best friends - so we got updates frequently. I remember making a badge with a yellow ribbon and his name and wearing it every day to school. Then it was over before you could blink. This kind of started a string of shorter, limited conflicts. Budgets got cut since we weren't in a perpetual battle. And the military slipped from view.
I firmly believe that our challenge, as Americans, is to never forget the past. It isn't so we live there. But it is to remember the lessons taught. It is to be appreciative for what we have. There are two major dangers that people groups face - forgetting history and feeling entitled. That is how atrocities happen. You forget the sacrifices made to get you where you are, the price that was paid. And you begin to believe that somehow you deserve the freedoms and luxuries you have. In my opinion, this is one of the biggest problems in America today - people feel they deserve a certain quality of life, a certain status, a certain set of goods. So they get angry when they don't have those things. And they blame everyone else for that.
There have been societies in the past that have had that mindset. Ancient Greece. Ancient Rome. The Feudal Lords. Even to some extent, WWII Germany. What happened to those places? They got lazy and complacent. They were blind to the dangers around them. They started to think they were invincible or too mighty to lose. They got greedy and fat. And they got defeated by someone else who were not looking at things through a falsely covered perspective. I believe that gratitude goes a long way to keep your perspective right. It requires you to look back at the lessons of history. It makes you realize that there was a supreme cost to your situation. It forces you to remember there are other people around you. It reminds you that you are in someone's debt, that your good fortune came at a price. We teach our children to say thank you when they get a present, right? Why? It is to show them that we should always show appreciation for the good things we have. It helps us also appreciate the gift more when we remember that someone gave it to us. There are some things I have received as gifts that I would have gotten rid of over the years based on the item itself - it had outlived its usefulness, for example. But I kept it just because of who gave it to me. It meant more because it was a gift.
The fact is, we as Americans did not get to where we are just because we are inherently awesome. We didn't deserve it. It wasn't just our destiny. It took the sacrifice of literally millions of men and women. And, once we achieved a land with freedom and opportunity, we had millions more people sacrifice themselves to protect that way of life. I may not agree with everything the government does. I may not like some of the decisions they are making or some of the steps they take. I believe as a responsible engaged citizen that I am required to point out when there are things wrong. I need to vote and debate. I need to write my representatives. I need to be informed. That is part of my role. But I am never going to get to the point where my frustration with the people in government is going to be mistaken for a hatred of the nation itself. It drives me crazy when people threaten to leave America because they are angry over health care or social issues or gay marriage or whatever. I do not believe that you can show me another country on earth that allow you to the freedoms you have in America. There are not other places that give people the chance and ability to move themselves out of the status they were born into like the USA. A person born into a regular average home can make money, get elected, fulfill their dreams. They are not locked into a status forever. I am a born again Christian and an ordained minister. I am allowed to type that into this blog without fear that someone is going to come bust down my door and haul me off to prison. You may not like the fact that I believe that way. You may detest my God and my religious beliefs and WISH someone would drag me off to prison. But, the great thing about America, is that you can feel THAT way too.
We live in an amazing country. And the only way that this place exists is because people fought and died to create it, maintain it, and defend it. It is essential to remember that. If not, we start to think that this is just the way things should be - that it is our right just because we were born here. Earlier today, someone told me that when they complain about stuff, their mom will say, "It could be worse. You could be deployed overseas for a year." It is her way to remind this person that there are other people whose situation is harder than ours. That is important to remember - it gives the right perspective.
That is why I think Memorial Day is SO vital to our country. It forces us to remember those people who are serving in our military to protect us. It makes us think back through history - the good and the bad - to make sure we learned the lessons well. It gives us a chance to express our gratitude to those people who sacrifice their lives, their families, their safety for ours. "Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends." Yes, that came from John 15:13 in the Bible, but it just as much applies to the members of our military. They sacrifice their lives for us - how can you top that?
So I challenge you this holiday weekend, in between the hot dog and the burger, express some gratitude. Offer a prayer of safety for our troops overseas. If you know someone who is serving, send them a letter. Contact their spouse and see if there is anything you can do for them. At the very least, thank THEM for allowing their loved one to serve. If you can, make a donation to the USO or to a Veteran's support organization. Make something to take to the veterans at a local nursing home. If you see someone in uniform, pay for their meal or coffee or groceries. If you own a company, give a military discount. If you work at a company that offers a military discount (most of them do, if you check), make sure that you give that to your customers. At the very least, be thankful. It is quite certain they deserve that.