Growing up, my brother and I often watched those old military movies that were sometimes on TV during Veterans Day. This was before “Saving Private Ryan” and “Band of Brothers,” when a “war movie” was “The Green Berets” or “Sands of Iwo Jima.” The storylines tended to romanticize war and revolve around dashing heroes.
There wasn’t much blood or gore, and terms like “IED” and “RPG” weren’t common parlance.
My grandfather, a parachutist, took part in the Battle Of Normandy in World War II in 1944. I never heard him speak about that or his military service at all. It was only as a teenager, after his death on Veterans Day, that I realized that while he came home from that war, not all of him made it back. He has been dead for 22 years now, and when I think of him, my thoughts drift back to the man who bought me my first “big girl” bike and paid extra for purple streamers, and who was never without a King Edward brand cigar.
I never thought that I’d see a war in my lifetime. I also never thought I’d be writing about young Aroostook County men who died because of it.
I have had to attend and report on countless funerals over the past 10 years. The job never gets easier, especially when the deceased is a casualty of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In my reporting area, we have lost five young men: Army Spc. Dustin Harris of Patten; Marine Cpl. Dustin Libby of Castle Hill; Army 1st Sgt. Jonathan Lowery of Houlton, Marine 1st Lt. James Zimmerman of Smyrna, and Army Sgt. First Class Aaron Henderson of Hodgdon.
The oldest, Lowery, was 38. The youngest, Harris, was 21.
All of these funerals have been heart wrenching. When someone that young dies, some find solace in saying that the decedent “fit a lot of living” into such a short time. Sometimes that is true. But mainly those are just words to assuage our own sadness. The truth is, our thoughts linger on how much more living they could have fit in had they been given the time to do so.
I think that when anyone dies, we bury someone we loved and lost all over again. It could be a friend or relative, a parent or child. For me, all of these funerals have reminded me of my grandfather’s. There are so many similarities – the flag from the casket, the final salute from a fellow soldier, the patches and medals. Had he lived, my grandfather would be in his 90’s now. I think of him daily and wish that I could have learned more about the life he led before I stepped into it. I was a teenager when he died, naturally self-centered, too caught up in my own world to get tangled up in memories from his.
If I had a few minutes to speak to him today, I would tell him that I am sorry for that. I’d tell him how much I enjoyed his life and his love, even if I never really acknowledged it.
With Veterans Day upon us, I am reminded again of the countless youngsters who consider athletes, actors and musicians “heroes.”
Many of them are, I am sure. But our soldiers, the ones who give without getting in parts of the world few know much about, are so often left out.
As the two long wars continue, even the attention we as a nation pay to fallen soldiers has diminished. When the wars first started, all of the network news stations set aside a segment of their nightly newscasts to honor a fallen soldier. That doesn’t happen anymore.
At the same time, people in Aroostook County have come out in force to honor those we have lost, standing in silence as caskets have returned, filling high school gymnasiums to mourn with loved ones, dedicating events and even landmarks to these young men.
Each night, I turn to the last page in my journal and look at the names of the five fallen soldiers I have written about since the death of Dustin Harris in 2006.
When I read the names and the dates, the same mantra passes through my mind.
“I must remember these names. I must remember these sacrifices.”
For all represent what a hero really is.