Lives behind the numbers
May 21, 2012
by Ivan Raconteur

People who attend Memorial Day celebrations across the US Monday, May 28 will remember those who died in service to their country.

At many of those events, speakers will help to give an identity to those who are honored, and that is important.

Unless one has a personal connection to someone who died serving his country, it is easy to view Memorial Day in abstract, rather than personal terms.

I remember growing up during the Vietnam War. Hearing the daily body counts on the evening news was a brain-numbing experience, and it made the deaths impersonal somehow.

Perhaps this has been true in all conflicts, before and since Vietnam, but that experience remains vivid for many of us, possibly because the numbers involved were incomprehensible.

That does not mean, however, that death is only important when the numbers are great. Each individual death represents a life extinguished – a son or a daughter, brother or sister, mother or father, friend or spouse – who will never return home.

We are de-sensitized to the reality of death when it is reduced to simple numbers.

It is easier to accept the loss of life when we can hold it at arm’s length and refuse to give it a face.

Perhaps Memorial Day would mean more than an excuse for picnics and three-day weekends if we stopped to think of the faces and the names behind the numbers.

Memorial Day is not a celebration of war. It is a chance for us to pay respect those who died in service to their country.

They may have been fulfilling the role of warrior when they died, but that was only a small part of who they were.

These men and women had hopes and dreams. Before they were soldiers they attended school, worked at jobs, and served their communities.

Some of those who died may not have agreed with their government, or the reason they were sent to war, but they went because they believed in their country.

These men and women represent duty, service, and sacrifice.

We toss around the expression, “the ultimate sacrifice,” but one wonders if we stop to consider what that means.

Perhaps it means that these people cared so much about their country that they gave their lives to defend it, even knowing that they might never again be able to enjoy the freedom that they were protecting.

Surely, some of these people would rather have stayed home and allowed others to fight on their behalf.

But they didn’t stand idly by. They were called and they went.

Whatever we do and wherever we are this Memorial Day, it seems like we should at least take a moment to think of those who gave their lives so that we can enjoy ours.

We should take a break from reveling a beautiful spring day to remember not the numbers, but the people behind the numbers. We should think of them as they were in life, and remember that without them and the sacrifices they made, our lives might be very different.

Memorial Day is about more than politics and picnics.

I try to look beyond the flag waving and drum beating. I look beyond the speeches and the ceremonies.

I think of people like my friend Steve. That is not his real name, out of respect for his privacy, but his story is real.

He and I went to school together and worked together. We played football together and generally stirred up trouble together.

He was not an exceptional student, and there was nothing much to make him stand out in a crowd.

One of the last conversations I had with Steve took place shortly before he left to join the service.

He had been talking about it for months. He bragged about where he would go and what he would do. He painted a rosy picture, but he was putting on a brave front.

That last night, he shared how he really felt.

We were sitting on our favorite rocks up at the river. It was a dark night, illuminated only by the stars in the summer sky.

We were drinking cheap wine and listening to the river, just as we had done dozens of times before.

“I don’t want to die,” he said.

He talked about some of the things the government was doing at the time, which he thought could easily put him in harm’s way.

In the darkness, he talked about what he wanted to do with his life. He also talked about fear, and said he was afraid of what might happen to him when he put on his country’s uniform. He repeated that he did not want to die.

He was scared as hell, but when the time came, he went, just as his older brother, and his father, and his grandfather had gone before him.

Steve was one of the lucky ones. He did not die in service to his country, but despite his fear, and his distrust of government, he served out of a sense of duty and because he loved his country.

Steve’s is one of the faces I remember on Memorial Day. He didn’t die, but I bet a lot of those who died were just like him – ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

I don’t personally know anyone who died in service to this country, but thinking of Steve and that night at the river reminds me that those who serve are real people with real lives, not just numbers on a page.

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