I heard them first as a boy; young enough to wonder, too young to understand. They come to you unrefined, simply and how they were first impressed upon my mind.
Grandpa Kelly traced his finger over the grainy picture in the book and pointed to a face that vaguely looked like his. “That’s me,” he said with a slight smile. But he wore no smile in the picture. Neither did his companions in the landing craft. It was D-Day and they looked somber. The smell of vomit was what he remembered most. Over 400,000 United States service men and women lost their lives during World War II. I am grateful my Grandpa Kelly wasn’t one of them.
Stories of my uncle’s experience during the Korean War drifted through the family. He was a minesweeper and not fond of the job. He went AWOL. He turned himself in. He made it out alive. Over 33,000 United States service men and women died in combat in the three years of our involvement. I’m glad my uncle wasn’t one of them.
Three of my brothers served during the Vietnam War. They were all volunteers. Only two of them made it to the theater; something the third never truly forgave them for. Only one came back whole. I remember Franklin lacing up the leather braces on his forearms, the funny way the meat on his arm moved under scarred skin. Years later I learned that the magazine of his M-16 took a round of enemy fire while he was on patrol and the weapon blew apart in his arms. He took another bullet in the heel as he crawled his way out of the rice patty. It took many months for his body to heal; many years for his mind. The smell of putrid decay is the memory that troubles him the most. Over 50,000 United States service men and women lost their lives in that conflict. I’m glad that none of my brothers did.
Today, friends and family serve on the front lines of the American War on Terror. They have lost friends, comrades, and brothers-in-arms. I’ve stood at many a funeral and dug graves not a few. I’ve eulogized and preached, comforted and buried. But gratefully, I’ve never been called on to stand strong while taps played long for a departed loved one.
To all those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for this nation and to their families that offered them up, I owe undying gratefulness. You didn’t come home. But my family has. And because of you and them, there was a land of the free to come home to. Thank you.