It’s tempting to think of warriors as different from the rest of us—they somehow feel less pain and fear than ordinary people. Only when we recognize that fighting men and women have the same fears and desires we all do can we recognize the real nature of their courage and sacrifice.
A smart friend said that or something pretty close. It has affected the way I think about bravery.
Not having served, I’m grateful to those who did, and those who are. I’m also grateful to their families and loved ones. The burden borne by families of service members hit home hard in a couple close encounters I had with their love and sacrifice.
It was date night on a Friday some years ago early in the Iraq War. My wife and I waited to be seated at a restaurant. A young couple with a small child stood in line behind us. Their affection was not at all inappropriate for the setting, but there was a palpable urgency to their gaze and tenderness in their touch. As the glance from the corner of my eye turned and became a more direct observation, his youth and very short hair were suddenly notable.
“Are you in the military, sir?”
“Are you being deployed?”
Her face locked tighter onto him, her affection and worry shining brightly.
“Are you going to the Middle East?”
He paused and said he couldn’t say. But his half nod, half shrug answered quiet and clear.
“God bless you and your family.”
It suddenly became clearer than ever before: the United States has the most powerful military on earth because this young man volunteered to serve, and when ordered into duty, he was willing to go around the world and live in dirty, dangerous conditions, and fight. And also because this young woman was willing to be part of his life, and make him part of hers, support his service, and stay behind with their small child. And too, because his parents raised a man like him, and also supported his choice.
It’s not just him or her, but millions of individuals from all walks of life in all corners of the nation. There circumstances are different but the same in one vital respect: they are willing to serve. We the People: men and women, our neighbors, classmates, our brothers, sisters, children and parents, are willing to commit to defend their nation. Their families stand behind them. And are left waiting and worrying behind.
In a country as vast, prosperous and technologically advanced as the United States, it’s easy to think abstractly of our strength. It’s an outgrowth of our large population, our national GDP, wealth and resources, our astounding technology. But that gets things backwards. We are strong and protected because real people are willing to serve.
Every man and woman who leaves their home, their neighborhood, their comforts, creates that strength. Every family who sustains the fighter’s commitment also support’s their nation’s strength.
I saw again and more poignantly the cost borne by families at an honor ceremony in Colorado’s Capitol. A young man from Thornton, a city near my home was one of Colorado’s early casualties in the war. His parents and family came for a special resolution honoring their son and expressing gratitude to them.
After the resolution was read and passed, and remarks shared, lawmakers walked single-file past the parents. I shook the father’s hand, and saw his wet eyes. I hugged the mother and saw her wet cheeks.
It became sharply clear again. Our fallen soldiers are not “American” losses or statistics; they are not news about a distant tragedy. They are friends, neighbors, brothers, children. They leave behind a life full of promise, hopes, and fears. They leave a large hole in the fabric of the lives of their loved ones.
America is strong, because Americans give a time of their life, and sometimes their blood, to protect her. Thank you to all who serve.