As an Army Chaplain, one of my most meaningful duties and highest honors has been with families who I help through their experience the Ultimate Sacrifice of their loved one. Between deployments and across the worst of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I’ve done probably fifty or more memorials for fallen Soldiers, or “Casualty Notification” missions where I’m on the team knocking on the door to deliver the news that the family behind the door will not be having their loved one coming home. More recently, I’ve also been a part of well over a hundred Military Funeral Honors missions, providing military honors and laying to rest mostly Vietnam era Veterans, with quite a few WW II, Korean era Vets and a smattering of others.
One of those doors I knocked on had one of those blue star flags, indicating one of the family was currently deployed, except this flag had four stars—four members serving, though one had just returned–so the immediate question was “which one?” One of those doors I knocked on, the younger brother of the one killed ended up a friend of my daughter’s going to West Point together, and I’m still connecting with the parents. One of those doors was answered by a pregnant young mom with a baby in arms and toddler in tow. One was for a recent high school graduate whose memorial I led in the high school auditorium where my son attended, and where my daughter the following year started. Another of those had her story (though I doubt my part) turned into a book that for a while at least, was in talks to become a movie (“Ashley’s War”). Probably my most memorable of those funerals was for a Korean War MIA whose 60+ year old remains had only recently been returned and identified, yet he was still remembered by old playmates as a favorite big brother of the neighborhood who showed the meaning of service when he went off to war.
Most of the Casualty Notification events were from combat deaths, but some were from accidents or suicide, as also have been too many of the memorials I’ve done. I’ve heard the word “tragedy” used countless times to describe the deaths of so many promising young souls, and for those whose deaths were by accident or suicide, the word certainly fits. But while it is a terrible loss when any loved one dies, is the word “tragedy” really appropriate for one who has willingly put themselves in harm’s way for the love of others, which results in what Jesus Himself described as a demonstration of ultimate love: “Greater love has no one than this, that they lay down their lives for a friend”?
God has put each of us on this earth for only a limited time, and while some are older, some younger when that time comes, in terms of God’ view of time, even the most ancient of human lives is but a flash. No one gets out alive. But God didn’t put us on this soil in a competition to see who can last the longest, or who can collect the most friends or most toys. If anything, the contest is to see who can be the most of a blessing. And if “greater love has no one than this,” isn’t it then a grand prize from God’s perspective, rather than a “tragedy,” when someone reaches their end blessing others in that Ultimate way? I’ve heard countless friends of those who died in combat almost insulted by the word “tragedy,” saying that their friend would be proud to be called on to give their life in such a way.
At one of my previous churches, I met for coffee each week with a group of WW II Vets, the youngest of whom first arrived in Germany just after the fighting ended. Yet decades later, he still reflected on that time of service as one of the highlights of his life. Many people struggle to make sense of their lives. Veterans often make sense of their lives in terms of their service, but when they do struggle in this way, it is usually after their time of service, challenged with where to find a place to fit in when life after the military is much more often not about service, but about self.
I saw a commentary years ago about the term “Veterans Day,” and where the apostrophe belongs if it is a day for Veterans. But note there is no apostrophe—it is not a day FOR Veterans, but ABOUT Veterans. It is a chance all of us have because of Veterans to reflect on what it means to serve, and what it means to truly give our lives—whether in life or in death—as a tangible demonstration of love for others.
THANK YOU to all our Veterans! Rev. Jim