We live in an age in which some confuse heroes with entertainers and role models for charlatans, but remembering Americans who died in distant lands places perspective in sharper relief.
As a boy, I spent afternoons playing “Army” with friends. We were aware of Vietnam, but the neighborhood sheltered us until two names personified the war: Cpl. Frank Miller and Lt. James Francis O’Laughlin. Frank was the uncle of my best friend while James O’Laughlin was the father of another classmate. Both soldiers died in Vietnam. Every Memorial Day, I think of them.
Iraq and Afghanistan are my generation’s wars. One autumn day I was told my friend Dave was killed in Iraq. I was to escort him home. I reflected on our time together at Fort Bragg, N.C. Fighting was the melody he danced to, and Dave knew the steps well. Ever the consummate warrior-scholar, Dave was a well-read Green Beret who helped children wherever he served, but life shifts in an instant. I remember how he set his jaw in grim determination when challenged, and I suppose that’s the look he had on his final day. There was no manual instructing me what to say when his wife threw herself onto his casket. The experience skinned my insides.
Some nights I stare at the stars and think of Bill, Laura, Ted, Justin (who grew up down the river in Coal Grove, Ohio) and Drew. They were the brave ones willing to lay it on the line and now remain eternally young.
When visiting their graves, I don’t blunt emotions or debate the logic behind the wars in which they fought. What I see are patches of grass containing dreams of what might have been — Daddy/daughter dances, games of catch, first days of school, walks down the aisle and reunions. Their unfinished lives moor me to the past while whispering the warning not to allow life to grow stale. The cemetery is a confessional where secrets to my friends leak out of my mouth, and the past grafts with the present. But what of graves with no names and few visitors?
Just off to the right of the Fort Myer, Va., entrance to Arlington National Cemetery stands a stone with a simple epigraph: #8067. Unknown. U.S. Soldier
Behind this grave is No. 8429. Behind that stone is No. 8443. Flanked on both sides are others. Who knew these brave souls “Known but to God”? No. 8067 is buried in one of the Civil War sections. Did this Soldier know my great-great-uncle Eli who joined the Union at age 18, saw action at Shiloh and died soon after?
I try to make my friends’ sacrifices worthwhile by evaluating relationships.
Each one of us can make a difference: surprising our kids at school lunch, calling old friends with whom we’ve lost contact, inviting neighbors or clergy for dinner, visiting retirement homes to listen to stories of old times or spending the day with a spouse. Maybe it’s a simple “hello” to one who least expects it. Showing kindness and empathy to fellow Americans — even those with whom we disagree — is the least we can do for Frank Miller, James O’Laughlin, Soldier #8067 and others who left behind unfinished lives.
What’s the cost? A moment of our time, that’s all. What some wouldn’t give for a moment.
Army Lt. Col. Zoltan Krompecher is an active-duty officer from Ohio. He served in Iraq and Afghanistan and now lives near Washington, D.C., with his family. These views are his own.