Memorial Day Notes:
Years ago, I would go to gatherings around the area on this day. Sometimes I gave speeches. Other times, I listened to local politicians give speeches. Over and over, what I heard from that ilk were the same empty words, the same vapid, banal lines that punched all the correct boxes and had none of the meaning, and none of the understanding.
So, public events are not my thing anymore.
In our nation’s gestational phase, we were held together through the darkest hours by a tiny band of idealists willing to shoulder rifles and die for a cause larger than themselves.
And die they did. You want to see idealism tested? Try watching your friends die of exposure at 1777 Valley Forge. See the amputations of frostbitten feet. Think about the thousand or so who marched on Christmas Eve through snow and freezing rain to get a chance to strike a blow against the chained attack dog mercenaries the British hired to terrorize our forefathers.
Professional mercs. Occupying New Jersey. Think of that. And the rest of the population so cowed by their might that to stop the terror fell to a tiny “army” on the verge of starvation.
That small force Washington led could be followed by the blood trails they left in the snow. Men without shoes, walking on shredded feet wrapped in ice-flecked rags went forward in that holiday storm knowing they would not even be able to shoot at their enemy because their powder was soaked. The enemy had bayonets. The Americans laregely did not.
They marched, they struck swiftly– and won at Trenton, then Princeton, then slipped away across the Delaware virtually under the nose of the greatest army of the era.
They fought and died in countless horrific ways. They were rarely paid. The government they helped create screwed so many times that it nearly triggered a mutiny. Only the presence of George Washington and a handful of other solid leaders held these idealists together.
They watched their farms get burned, their families run out of pro-British counties. In the South, a guerrilla war turned into a contest of complete savagery, with the innocents on the both sides caught in the crossfire.
Year after year, the idealists got crushed by the professionals. They died at places our schools never mention anymore: Guilford Courthouse, Camden, Savannah, Brandywine and Brooklyn Heights to name a few.
In their darkest moments, like when they ran out of ammunition at Bunker Hill, the idealists threw rocks as the British leveled bayonets and advanced upon them. Think of the desperation that took.
They died torn apart by grape shot, bones smashed by musket balls. They died in primitive field hospitals with the rolled cuffs of a blood-soaked surgeon looking down at them as their last earthly sight.
They died of disease. Malnutrition because the Continental Congress could not afford to feed them. They froze to death on sentry duty because threadbare rags were all they wore.
Many are buried in mass graves, anonymous to history and those who benefited most from their vision of the future.
Those are the guys who set the standard that every generation strives to match. And every generation of Americans has proven they have enough idealists, men and women, to carry the standard forward in every dark hour we have faced. With their blood, they liberated the slaves. They saved Europe twice. South Korea. We tried in Vietnam and the Middle East.
When I think of Taylor today, I’ll think of how he was the one of those few in our time who shouldered the burden of a global war fought without the full might of America at their backs. I’ll think about my many friends who served in obscure places across the globe during the many wars that rocked the 20th Century.
I’ll think about Gerald Johnson, a quintessential American idealist, who could not stomach the idea of staying home with his pregnant wife when men his age were fighting and dying in the Pacific.
I’ll think about the medevac birds I watched land at FOB Ghazni while we were refueling. The bodies of broken men half my age pulled off the Blackhawks by Polish medics, then rushed to waiting ambulances. Allies in a cause that seemed noble once, probably unobtainable now.
I will never forget the moment one of those wounded Soldiers, an Afghan who’d been fighting alongside our idealists, turned his eyes to me. His face was burnt and blackened. His leg severed above the knee, white bone exposed. His boot with the rest of his leg was sitting beside him on the stretcher. His eyes were the bleakest sight I’ve ever seen.
How many of our idealists spent their final minutes with eyes so defined?
So when I hear some elected official who knows nothing of our history and even less about the military stand at a podium and punch their Memorial Day box…well. That’s not for me anymore. This is a day that is intensely private, and I will mourn those I’ve lost alone. And I will pray that for the sake of our nation, we somehow keep finding those few, genuine idealists willing to carry the standard in our darkest hours and stake their lives on a vision of a future full of hope.