Monday, May 27, 2013

Counting The Cost

In 21st century America, we live in a world of ease, of amazing luxury, and remarkable freedoms. A quick visit to any number of countries we label as ‘third world’ would make even the most squalid single-wide trailer – ahem, mobile home – appealing. We’ve seen the pictures in National Geographic, we’ve heard the emotional appeals from well-heeled celebrities, and for all the best of intentions and intense passions, we essentially live our lives oblivious to what those conditions are like. Reality is, we’re pretty much oblivious to most things outside of our suburban cocoon. We’ve come to take quite a lot for granted with little or no sacrifice.

I certainly wouldn’t begrudge someone a life of ease, but I wonder sometimes if we’ve been lulled into a state of complacency that numbs just enough to keep us from moving to any kind of response.  We move in a routine that would make Pavlov jealous, salivating for the next shiny object – unaware, unconcerned, or convinced that we’re somehow entitled. I’ve struggled with bigots, bumper-sticker patriots, and politicians who perpetuate their own version of a myth of hypocrisy, but the frustration I experience I can only relate to others who share my sense of idealism. And of course, idealism is fraught with its own shortcomings as well, I fully recognize!

I’ve been trying to reconcile how so many of us glibly go about our daily lives without giving a second thought to something as grave as Memorial Day. The day that was established to remember and honor our war dead has been essentially reduced to the day demarking the beginning of the summer vacation season. It’s now officially OK to wear white, to go to the pool, to throw a steak on the barbecue, or to take the kidlins to Disneyland. Now, again, none of these things are wrong, of course. It’s just that like the suburban cocoon we’ve constructed around ourselves, we’ve conveniently put the proverbial blood, sweat, and tears out of our consciousness and relegated our patriotism to a car magnet that says something about supporting our troops. For the low, low price of a car magnet, we can assuage any guilt we have for our life of ease and we can just pull the thing off when we want…or we can put something on our Facebook page for free. Convenience abounds!

I raised my hand and took my oath of office as a commissioned officer during the Cold War. We played global footsy with the Soviets and their satellites, never knowing if the ‘bubble would go up’ and start another world war.  When Mr. Gorbichev tore down the Berlin Wall and ushered in a new period of uneasy peace we came to know as Glasnost and Perestroika, some new challenges presented themselves. I remember some hairy periods on active duty which included a deployment to the former Yugoslavian republics in the early 1990s. My battle group was headed toward the Suez Canal to join the folks in the Persian Gulf, but was turned back at the last minute when things ended. I can’t say that I was disappointed about that, but like any other veteran, I wrote a blank check to the government – your government – that essentially said that it could cash it up to and including the value of my life if need be over the course of my eighteen years in uniform. Because I’m writing this little missive today, the amount of that check wasn’t fully cashed, but there are tens of thousands of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines who did, in fact, endorse that check. And they are the ones that I think about today. 

I’ll admit I’ve never been to a veteran’s cemetery to lay a wreath or do anything we might otherwise consider traditional on a day like today, but as I’ve been taken care of by the Veteran’s Health Care System, those years in uniform are being lauded regularly by everyone I meet and it’s a sobering, humbling privilege I finally am faced with.  Up to this point, I shrugged it off as something akin to “Aw shucks, ma’am, I was just doin’ my job.” And honestly, I quite often reminisce back on those heady days in the cockpit, on the bridge of a warship, or in the blue lights of the Combat Information Center for the Destroyer Squadron as a rush. It was exciting. It is what I was meant to do. Bravado aside, it’s no less a calling than so many other professions.

Now that I’ve been out of uniform since 1999, I see the military for what it is – a privilege to serve. Perhaps the term, serve, isn’t in vogue, but service is exactly what it is. It’s tough, gritty, and demanding with lifelong rewards...and lifelong fallout. I have lost Naval Academy classmates to war and acts of terrorism and to aircraft crashes; I have friends and family who have borne the scars, both physically and mentally from combat experiences; and while there’s a pretty well-established link between cancer and radiation and certain chemicals, I’d do it over again. It’s what I was meant to do and from what I can tell from talking with many other veterans, there’s a shared camaraderie in that. It’s obviously not universal and when you’re in the thick of it, precious few of us are thinking lofty thoughts about service, but that 20/20 hindsight kicks in somewhere along the way.

I don’t want to be the buzz kill of the Memorial Day party and I wouldn’t want to tell someone to feel something they don’t, but my hope for our troops on the front lines is that they come home as soon as possible; that we as Americans stateside never, ever forget the sacrifice they’re making regardless of how we feel politically about our involvement overseas. For our war dead, may the memories of their lives be honored by us all as a nation, community, and neighbor, taking care of their families and in celebrating their lives, may we lift a glass in their salute and as a friend of mine puts it, “live the dream.” How better to prove a life well lived and given than to prove that it wasn’t offered in vain!

Today’s music – I Remember You by Nat King Cole

Was it in Tahiti?
Were we on the Nile?
Long, long ago, say an hour or so
I recall that I saw your smile
I remember you
You're the one who made
My dreams come true
A few kisses ago

I remember you
You're the one who said
"I love you, too, I do"
Didn't you know?

I remember too
A distant bell
And stars that fell like rain
Out of the blue

When my life is through
And the angels ask me to recall
The thrill of them all
Then I shall tell them
I remember you