Election Day was earlier this week. I listened to the onslaught of ads, read through the propositions, consulted with those knowledgeable about the issues, and voted after careful consideration. We vote by ballot in our county so I followed the instructions to properly seal the envelope, located the appropriate drop site, took the short drive downtown and added my choices to those of my community neighbors on how we’d like our government run.
After many years repeating this same process, tucking that envelope into the drop box was still an emotional experience. A sense of profound gratitude overcame me that I am allowed the privilege of having my simple mark mean so much in the world I live in when others have no voice, no choice, and no hope of changing their futures.
That privilege does not come unfettered.
Our family has multiple military members. My stepfather served in the Army during WWII in the North African campaign. He didn’t talk much about the events, didn’t brag about battles fought or his rank in the company, but when he did offer a story there was a quality in his voice, in his eyes, that spoke more abundantly about the haunting of his experiences than long narratives. He was sixteen when he joined up, forging the paperwork to allow him entrance into service. He was not an innocent for long.
My stepfather was an infantryman, assigned to a tank with a handful of young men, assembled by chance and formed into a unit closer than most families by duty, purpose, and fear. In confines close enough to identify his immediate brother-in-arm by the smell of individual sweat, they shared tight space, meals, letters from home, and their hope that they would all get home to resume their interrupted lives. He was sixteen, undergoing the most intense experience of his limited viewpoint. Those men were his life.
He told the tale of being on the run from enemy fire, of days spent at high adrenaline not knowing which breath would be his last. They were confined to their tanks, ordered not to exit as the convoy made slow progress. Nature sometimes has other ideas and the pain of an overly full bladder has its own persuasions. The men agreed, pulled aside, and two of them, my stepfather included, made their way outside to take care of necessities.
As my stepfather and his friend made their way back, enemies targeted. Their tank, the insulating world he’d built against the horrific scenario he’d been dropped into, holding the men who’d helped him stay sane with card games and gentle ribbing, received fire. The tank burst into flames.
He and his remaining friend literally ran three days to get away from enemy lines and regain his company.
He never did outrun the experience.
I, too, was an active duty military member. I know the feeling of standing in uniform when the national anthem plays, when the feeling of connection stretches across the generations and the act of raising a hand honors fallen compatriots and pledges an affirmation to stand for beliefs and their continuation. I can tell you that military members pray that the price of their convictions, to protect what they hold dear, does not involve their lives. I can tell you that they’ll pay the price willingly if it does.
I volunteered for deployment. There are a handful of transitions in life that are so monumentally significant that they define you. I know the exact moment that I stepped into adulthood.
It was night. The lights were dim and the air was crisp within the bay, flavored with generator fuel and medicinal alcohol. We were the welcome committee for a contingency of wounded, not knowing what to expect, but with adrenaline coursing through our veins and our skills primed.
They pushed a multitude of young men into the bay in rapid-fire release until the area was filled with the cries of the wounded. My eyes shifted to a young man as he looked about with a gaze that appeared sightless. He had bare cheeks and widened eyes and looked like a boy I’d find cruising the local high school, not one wearing a shredded uniform. A chaplain rushed to his side, held his hand and leaned in to whisper. The boy’s eyes held mine. They weren’t sightless.
Instead, they’d seen too much.
I know the exact moment that I stepped into adulthood, when I held the eyes of that boy and realized, my world was not a safe, insular bubble, but that boys and girls like these put themselves on the line to give those back home the appearance that it was.
I have not been the same. And I still pray for that boy.
I have a habit that embarrasses my family. When I’m in the community and my paths cross with a military member in uniform, I approach him or her, hold out my hand and say, “Thank you for your service.” I’ve never had a man or woman turn away from that handshake and occasionally I see an expression of gratitude cross their faces, but the gesture isn’t about them.
It’s for me.
To express the deep gratitude I feel for living in a country where I matter and knowing what I believe in is important enough for the sacrifice.
God bless our veterans. Today and always.