Thoughts on Memorial Day 2020

This year’s 2020 Memorial Day is much different than past Memorial Days for me in two distinct ways. First, this is the first Memorial Day I will experience without my Dad. Secondly, all of us find ourselves in a struggle that may even rival the threat that World War II posed to my Dad’s generation, as we now face the global COVID-19 Pandemic.

As my thoughts turn solemn, I wonder if these two realities may somehow be related. And if so, what lesson might they hold for us?

Earlier this month I received a certificate from the ‘United States of America’ bearing the signature of the ‘President of the United States’ that honored the memory of my Dad. These words in the document caught my immediate attention:

“…in recognition of devoted and selfless consecration to the service of our country…”

The term “selfless consecration” stood out from the rest of the words. “Selfless” I understood, but “consecration” is not a word I hear used much today. If you look up the meaning, you’ll find that it most often applies to a spiritual commitment to God, as in…

“Making a conscious, willing decision to dedicate your soul, mind, heart, and body to God. This decision must be one of will, intelligence, and affection. Only you can make the decision to consecrate yourself to God.”

But my Dad, and other service members from his generation, are recognized for their consecration to the service of “our country”. Think about that. Our service members are recognized for their conscious, willing decision to dedicate their soul, mind, heart, and body to the service of our country.

My Dad was fortunate; he never was exposed to combat during the war. But as he completed his training for maintenance of carrier aircraft, his next assignment would likely have been aboard an aircraft carrier supporting the invasion of mainland Japan. But the atomic bombs brought a sudden end to the war. Nevertheless, he and his mates had already made their conscious, willing decision to dedicate their soul, mind, heart, and body to the service of our country. Over 400,000 service members were required to give their last full measure (for the service of our country) and they did not return to their families or loved ones.

So, fast forward to today as we are faced with the national threat posed by the COVID-19 ‘enemy’. What are we being asked to “consecrate” in service to our country? As we progress in our own war against COVID, I come to believe that we are engaged in battle on two fronts: 1) the battle to preserve physical life, and 2) the battle to preserve our ‘way of life’ (personal and collective freedom).  But this battle should not pose an “either-or” choice but instead a “this-and” strategy.

I am confident that our battles on both of these fronts will be fought smartly and employ the best strategies we can devise using science and human knowledge. But let’s be honest, there are (and will be more) casualties on both fronts. That is the nature of war. The more looming question may be, “How do we as a society handle the fear associated with these losses?”  For the answer to that, maybe we should again look to the examples offered from our service members.

This past week I received an email written by an Army Chaplain that reminded me of one of those examples.  The chaplain relayed in a very personal story of how he had given “Shields of Strength” dog tags to a young Captain. These dog tags have a flag logo printed on one side and a scripture on the other. The most common verse printed on them is Joshua 1:9, and they are designed to be worn next to your heart at all times. That Captain was later the first U.S. officer killed in Iraq.   I too had received similar dog tags when in Iraq, and the Chaplain’s story brought back memories of how my own personal faith had brought comfort and encouragement to me in fearful times. (“I will be strong and courageous. I will not be terrified, or discouraged; for the Lord my God is with me wherever I go.” Joshua 1:9)

I know some of you are turned off by the thought of a faith in something you cannot see or touch. And for many, faith in a higher power is not found until all else is lost. One’s faith is entirely a personal and individual decision for each to choose. But, for me, my faith in God frees me to focus more on ‘living life’ than on ‘fearing death’. Wouldn’t less fear of death be a good thing for us to have as we deal with COVID-19?

My Dad’s WWII generation was known as “The Greatest Generation” for their sacrifice, courage, and endurance. How will our COVID-19 generation be remembered? Perhaps we all need ‘Shield-of-Strength’ dog tags for strength to face the fear that pervades our nation. My Dad lived his life to the fullest and his generation serves to remind me that our ‘not living’ dishonors those who have sacrificed or will yet sacrifice in their dying. Maybe it’s time for our own “selfless consecration”.

Making a conscious, willing decision to dedicate my soul, mind, heart, and body. This decision is one of will, intelligence, and affection. Only I can make the decision to consecrate myself to my country…or to God.

What You’ll Find Under This Flag

Samsung

What will you find where this flag flies?    The simple answer is – FREEDOM.

Unless you have spent significant time in any country that does not enjoy the extent of our freedoms, you will likely never fully appreciate our flag’s symbolism. Enjoy your freedom this and future July 4th Independence Days, and never take it for granted.

This flag flying in the midst of a July 2003 dust storm at Camp Speicher, Iraq was an unlikely sight for our convoy traveling from Baghdad to Mosul. But for us, it was a welcome reminder that we could find freedom, security, safety, and help within the camp’s borders as we stopped to get a vehicle repaired.

Just as that small American Flag in a tiny desert outpost represented safety and refuge to the few in our convoy, I can just imagine what it now means for those around the world fleeing violence and desperately seeking its refuge.

Although the concertina wire is unsightly, it serves as a stark reminder to me that freedom must be protected from those who oppose it, much like our own nation’s borders.  At the same time, gates are included to allow for reasonable access.

The lesson I took away for myself was to cherish my “Independence Days”.  And as a reminder, those days can be both national and personal.

A favorite quote:   “What is living if I can’t live free? What is freedom if I can’t be me?” – Bonnie Raitt

Memorial Day – A Life Cut Short

Today I visited the grave of a young soldier killed in Iraq, buried in Northern Wisconsin. This trip was somewhat of an act of closure for me. I did not know the young soldier (Paul), nor did I know any of his family members, or any of the soldiers in his unit. In fact, I only learned his identity a few years ago. But this trip was still meaningful for me.

Cemetery Wide

Paul’s tombstone was one of thousands that dotted the Northern Wisconsin’s Veterans Memorial Cemetery. It sits in the newer section and looks very much like the rest of the tombstones. If you look at the picture of the tombstone, you will learn a bit of information about Paul (I’ll not use his full name here.) He was an Army Specialist who served in Iraq. He died young, just eight days past his twenty-first birthday. He had received the Bronze Star and been awarded the Army Commendation Medal and the Army Achievement Medal. And…he was “loved by his family”.

Tombstone cropped

When I look at his birth date (Sep 14, 1982), I realize I was already thirty years-old then, but I can recall exactly where I was on that date. I had just started a four-year assignment in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia – nineteen days before he was born. I imagine neither of us never expected to end up in the middle-eastern deserts of Saudi or Iraq.

But it’s the date of his death that brought our random paths together, and brought me to his grave site today. On Sep 22, 2003 we both flew out of Mosul, Iraq in the back of a C-130 aircraft headed for Kuwait. We were both headed home, but it was Paul’s final journey. I sat along the side of the rear cargo bay as Paul’s body-bag was placed gently into the back of the C-130. It was dark except for a small red light in the back of the plane’s bay. Not a word was spoken by me or the other few on the flight. A quiet reverence filled the entire flight.  That time has seemed forever sacred to me. The flight was long, and it provided me a serious and somber time to reflect on my own few months in Iraq. What if…What if…What if?

At that time, I had no idea who the young soldier was that had been killed that day in Mosul. Male or female?…Someone I knew?…Someone who had provided security for my civilian team? Who? The ‘not knowing’ haunted me. It was years before I learned of Paul’s identity and that he had been killed by an accidental discharge of a fellow soldier’s weapon that day. The cause of death made little difference…Paul was still dead.

So, what’s my take-away thought today? Paul died young. Young…just like the overwhelming majority of men and women who have died in all our wars. I think that is what makes the death of our soldiers so tragic for the families. Lives were cut short, denied their full potential. Time has now marched on for Paul’s family without him in their lives for sixteen years.

I was reminded of just how young our soldiers are when last summer I had the opportunity to talk with two Vietnam vets from my small Alabama hometown. One had served in the Army in Vietnam just out of high school, only nineteen years old. The other (with the Navy) commanded a small river patrol boat in Vietnam at the age of 20, and was responsible for the lives of his three crew members. I also recalled that my uncle was only 22 when he was killed in Okinawa in 1945. By contrast, at the age of 19, 20 and 22, I was enrolled in college and safely preparing for my career and future.

As a closing thought, it is obvious to me that we should never forget these soldiers who sacrificed and who never returned. Nor should we forget their families who must endure the pain and separation of a life cut short. Likewise, we should honor those who served and did return…for their lives were forever changed and cut short in their own way.

Please remember them all this Memorial Day.

Jim Peak