Thursday, December 20, 2007

Person of the Year

I got a notice from a special operations colleague recently that a Navy SEAL in Joint Special Operations Command had died. The note said he died here in Iraq and that the funeral services would be held in Arlington National Cemetery. It reminded me of ‘Cheeze’, a former Navy SEAL in that same unit, and coworker of mine when he died. It also reminded me of Johnny, my old Army teammate who was killed here in Iraq a few weeks ago. He too, was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. The description of the service from another military teammate and friend made me feel like I was there with them; my eyes welled up with tears when I read it. It broke my heart to think of his wife and children weeping at the funeral.

One Sunday afternoon a couple of years ago, I reverently wandered around the military cemetery, looking for names. I saw the fresh flowers on some gravestones. A Jewish gravestone had rocks piled on top, as is customary throughout Israel and apparently throughout Judaism. A closer look at the name showed that a female U.S. military officer, a few years younger than I, had been killed in action in Iraq—or at least that’s what I remember. Looking around the many acres I stopped and read the inscriptions of hundreds of gravesites. I saw a funeral procession in the distance, and I couldn’t help but notice one mourning man, alone, weeping on bended knee near the site of his beloved.

Not long ago I received a letter asking if I knew of a war contractor that had died here. I didn’t know him personally, but I quickly found another contractor that gave me all the details of his death that I passed on to his family. The contractor, Dane, was just 23 years old. He was married and had a ten-month-old son that looked just like him. After an honorable discharge which included a tour in Iraq with the U.S. Marines, he came back as a security contractor. My friend who knew him well and attended his funeral wrote:

There was a stunning presentation by the Marines, with a 21 gun salute, a moving rendition of taps by a Marine bugler, and a presentation of Dane's flag to his wife. Made me proud to be an American and proud of our service men.

For anyone who’s ever attended a military funeral, nothing else can compare. Years ago when I was on active duty, a soldier in my unit died. Before the gun salute, our First Sergeant did a roll-call of everyone in the platoon. Everyone replied by saying, “Present” or “Here”, and then he sounded off the name of the soldier three times without an answer. You could have heard a pin drop. It was a profound and emotionally moving experience.

The only other time I attended a military-like funeral was on the tarmac at Ben-Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel. Three coffins draped in American flags lay behind the U.S. Ambassador as he offered a eulogy. The reporters ran to get the front spot; I thought it irreverent to run and jockey for positions at a funeral.

Yes, I have stood on the battlegrounds of the American wars, from Chattanooga to Gettysburg to the Korean peninsula, and now here in Iraq. I have been deeply troubled by the hatred and foolishness of men, but also astonished and grateful for the courage and heroism of those men and women who took up arms in defense of their country and in defense of good and just principles.

I have wept quietly at the gravesites of these and other military veterans who fought for Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness established in the Declaration of Independence. The last paragraph of the Declaration reads in part: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the Protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”

That pledge has gone down from generation to generation. It has taken a great toll. Indeed, lives and fortunes have been sacrificed.

At the end of this year, my vote for 'Person of the Year' goes to all the lonely spouses, the crying children, the mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters who’ve lost loved ones. They deserve our deepest admiration, love and respect.

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