Today, I had the opportunity to spend a small amount of time eating lunch with a man and a woman who had lost their son, Joseph, to war. They were not exactly elderly, but they were graying. They had traveled some 440 miles to get to the army base where I work and where my division was holding a ceremony of remembrance for the dead. Despite their reason for being there, they seemed happy to be there. The father told me he was honored to meet me, the current commander of the company that his son had served and ultimately died in all those years ago. I responded that I was honored to meet them. To me, that simple exchange we had right upon meeting told me everything I needed to know about why they had come so far to visit an organization that had led their son to the point of his early death.
About 7,000 American Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines have died in the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. That number may seem small in comparison of the human cost of other wars. It doesn’t seem small at all though when you see those families like the one I had lunch with today. Imagining 7,000 families like that is hard to do. Seeing the many families today that were there because they had lost sons, daughters, husbands, wives, and parents made that number even more real. I could look at each one and know that at some point in the not distant past, they had suffered unimaginable sorrow and loss.
Despite having been in the military for six years, with four years of military schooling preceding that, I’ve never had anyone that I was close to die in war. When I was a cadet at the military academy, especially during 2008 and 2009, we would frequently spend a few minutes at lunch standing at silent attention out of reverence for another graduate that had just been killed in action. Some people I graduated with in 2011 died in the wars. They died of small arms fire or improvised explosive devices, being in the wrong place at the right time. I recognize their names, but I was not close to them. I may have had classes with them. At least one man who died recently, a Green Beret, was an upperclassmen when I was a freshman. He was in my cadet company and we must have passed each other in the halls. Now he is dead and I have almost no recollection of him.
Having not had anyone close to me die makes me feel all the more for the families I saw today. I simply can’t imagine what it’s like to have a loved one die in war. The family I ate lunch with had lost their son. I don’t have children myself, but I can imagine little worse than to have to bury your child. To have a child die in a war must be even worse. Life is full of a thousand dangers. Every day we all risk death just by driving to work. So in that way, death is an expected result of living life. To die in a war though, so many things have had to come together. Years, decades, centuries of political reality building up, pushing us along like a wave pushes at a boat, thrusting the fallen towards that one point in time where they came up against the will of another human being to do them harm. So they have to consider the circumstances that brought their fallen Soldier to that point, and then there is the will. The people who die in war, in this modern era, die not because of disease or accidents, they died because someone else wanted them dead. Not only do those who lose loved ones in war have to confront the tragic chain of events that led their Soldier to that point in time, but they must also consider that their Soldier is dead for no other reason than that someone, somewhere willed it. I imagine that must be especially hard and I think that this is at the heart of the evil of War. It is destruction for no other reason than that it was willed.
This brings us back to the family I ate lunch with for about an hour today. Like I wrote, they seemed happy to be at the event. I find it hard to understand sometimes, the people who come to these events. Do they really like being reminded of their dead children, husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters? Do they get closure from this? If so, why do they keep coming back? Does it help them remember? When Joseph’s dad told me he was honored to meet me, I thought, well no, I’m honored to meet you. What that man said explained to me his reason for being there. I think Joseph’s father had come to visit because it reminded him of what his son’s life had meant, what his son had stood for. I think that by visiting, Joseph’s parents could see that their son had belonged to something, that he had had a purpose. For them, it seemed that the visiting was an act of remembrance.
Are there people who lose loved ones in war and then just move on? Those that never go to the memorial ceremonies, that try to just live their lives as best they can and not remember the sorrow that they’ve felt? I’m sure there are and there’s no saying that that isn’t just as valid of a response. There’s no playbook for dealing with death in war, whether its the death of a fellow Soldier or the death of a family member. There’s no right answer. Today though I saw one method. I saw those that choose to actively remember their loved ones that are gone, those that want to remind themselves of the why of their Soldiers’ choices. Joseph’s parents didn’t talk much about his death today. What they did talk about was his life, his quirks, the things that got him in trouble, and the nicknames that the drill sergeants had for him. They talked about, and remembered, his life. I think that’s one of the best things you could do.