By Dave Markwell
“The soldier has come to believe, and with considerable reasons, that those who talk about ideals do not fight for them, and that those who fight for them do not talk about them. The soldier knows that when the nation fights for freedom in far-flung areas of the world, he must lose his freedom, his comfort, and even his identity for the duration of the conflict. The ideals for which he is fighting can have little meaning for any soldier so long as the war lasts, while for those who die, and for many of the wounded, they can never have any meaning at all. He knows that those who speak so glibly of ideals have no conception of what the process of enforcing those ideals means in terms of pain and starvation and death and horror.”
– Williard Waller, WWII Veteran in 1944
A couple of years ago, after an evening out, my wife and I headed to Denny’s for the obligatory late-night gut-bombing. Per normal procedure, my wife drove as I was, once again, over-served and not capable of operating any type of vehicle, motorized or otherwise. It had been a good night with friends and I was happy. We were seated at our table and my wife took the booth side, which she always does. I like the booth side better, too, but never get it when I am with her.
The waitress brought us waters and menus. I chose the “Moons Over My Hammy”, a delicious egg, ham, and cheese sandwich, with hash browns. Sometimes, I get the “Superbird”, another yummy grilled sandwich with turkey and bacon, but this night, the “Moon’s” had it.
Sitting a table away was a young man. He was in his early twenties, I would guess. He was obviously in the military as his dress blues and haircut made this clear. He was sitting alone with an empty plate and a cup of coffee and the saddest look I have ever witnessed on a human face.
After a few minutes of hesitant looks over to him, our eyes met and I said “Hi”. He replied with a soft smile and we began talking. He was from somewhere in the Carolinas and was awaiting his red-eye flight back to his base. I don’t remember which branch of service he was in, but I remember that his grief hung like smoke in the dining room.
Through our course of small talk, I asked him what he was doing in town. He replied that he had come for a funeral. A fellow soldier and buddy had been killed in Iraq and the fallen man’s family was from the Seattle area. So, this soldier and other members of his unit had flown here to honor their lost comrade. The service was held earlier that day. This poor boy had just lain to rest a friend and brother. He had spoken with the weeping parents detailing the events that resulted in the lost life of their child. He was there when it happened and witnessed it and tried to save his friend, but couldn’t. His young heart was heavy and had changed.
This revelation made me want to hug this kid. I wanted to take him in my arms, like any good father, and tell him it would be ok. I wanted to turn back the clock and change the world for this sad boy. I could do nothing but shake my head and say “I’m sorry.” My heart was broken in this moment. His eyes had seen things they could not un-see. The soft and hopeful part of his youth was gone and I knew that it would not be ok. It would never be ok and the life he knew before that tragic moment would never return to him.
As he looked in my eyes pleading for an answer that I did not have, we connected. I honored his duty with my own profound sadness. All I could do was be sad for him and his friend and his friend’s family and the countless people impacted by the death of a single soldier. The look in my eyes said there is no answer, no truth, no tidy insight that can deliver the peace he was looking for. Perhaps it doesn’t even exist.
Before leaving I paid his bill and shook his hand, thanked him for his service and wished him good, safe luck for the rest of his tour. Then, my wife and I walked to the car and cried.
I still cry when I think deeply about this poor kid. He was real. His eyes were real and they revealed the true depth of his confused anguish. It is a depth known to so many soldiers and families of soldiers. It is a place that no one wants to be, but many volunteer to go and stare it down and hope their fortune holds. Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t.
This Veteran’s Day please imagine, deeply and truly, losing what you love most in this world and recognize that the men and women who chose to serve our great land risk losing and indeed, lose, what they love most, regularly. They do this for us. And it is with enormous reverence and gratitude that we must honor them, thank them, take care of them and do EVERYTHING in our goddamn power to keep these kids from getting killed. They are the most valuable things we have. God Bless them all…and their families…this day and every day…
[EDITOR’S NOTE:”Feel Good Friday” is a regular column written by Des Moines resident Dave Markwell, whose first book is called “A Feel Good Life” (buy it on Amazon here). Dave extols to all neighbors: “Enjoy where we live. Put your feet on the pavement and truly feel how great it is to live here!”