I walked hurriedly past an older couple a few weeks ago in my family’s business. The man was wearing a hat that signified his military service in Vietnam. It took a few steps before the significance of his hat registered in my mind. But I kept walking. Work. Multi-tasking. Tasks that aren’t going to take care of themselves, you know. Later in the day, I was hit with the slap of regret.
“Why didn’t you just stop what you were doing to offer your thanks to that older gentleman for his service?”
Because I’m 49 years old and I’m just beginning to learn about things that wish I’d known about many years ago (and by nobody’s fault but my own, of course).
Memorial Day in the United States. A day to commemorate men and women who have died in military service for our country. A day to remember. But there’s a problem. We cannot remember what we never bothered to learn about in the first place.
Maybe the key to acquiring wisdom is to first acknowledge how little we truly know. I used to write a lot and used to blog a lot. But at some point I gave up writing for reading. I can’t remember the exact moment where I was enlightened of my level of ignorance, but I can tell you that I read a couple of books whose stories floored me. First there was amazement at the courage, sacrifice, and horrors endured by our war veterans. And then I couldn’t believe just how little I knew about key historical events. So I read. Not to gain knowledge, but to gain understanding.
We are surrounded by heroes today who have stories that they mostly keep to themselves, but stories that deserve our understanding. Unless we seek a greater understanding of their sacrifice, how can we expect to show our appreciation for those who have sacrificed? Do we even know what we’re appreciating?
As we honor those who lost their lives in service on this Memorial Day, maybe there’s something that many of us are missing as we attempt to remember and honor the fallen. The veterans that walk among us today were there. They have amazing stories that are too painful to tell. They were witness to the deaths of those that we attempt to honor. They are heroes. Unless you’ve lost a family member in combat, unless you’ve gone to bed night after night uncertain about a love one in a combat zone, unless you were the one in that combat zone………….then you may be like me, you owe it to these heroes to learn learn their stories.
Do you know the story of Edgar Harrell and the survivors of the USS Indianapolis? We all should. When the Indianapolis went down in July 1945, 300 went down with the ship. 900 men were left to fight for survival with very little to keep them afloat and alive. After floating for four days until they were discovered, only 317 survived. Edgar Harrell saw many men drown and saw many men floating next to him killed by sharks. If you saw an elderly man out and about proudly wearing a USS Indianapolis hat, would you grasp the need to express deep gratitude to this hero? I can assure you that I wouldn’t have……until I read his story.
Do you know the story of Donald Stratton? He was aboard the USS Arizona when it was sunk at Pearl Harbor in 1941. 1,177 of his shipmates were killed. To escape the burning, sinking Arizona, he pulled himself hand over hand to a smaller escaping vessel on a rope that had been rigged between the two ships……..even though his body was severely burned and the flesh was burned away from his hands and fingers. After a long recovery that saw his body weight dip by over 70 pounds, he declined a discharge from service. This hero was back on another battleship before the war was over. If you saw someone proudly wearing a USS Arizona hat, would you know what they endured? You should.
There were others. Those guys proudly wearing their hats. Those who fought alongside the fallen. Their reply might be, “I’m not hero. Those who gave their lives are the heroes”. But their hats were screaming, “I served my country. I sacrificed for my country. I sacrificed for you. I’m proud of that”. But I wasn’t listening. I didn’t know enough to say thanks. I didn’t understand what a treasure these men were.
Men like Dub Newland. He was probably in his late 50’s when he taught a middle-school age Sunday school class at our church in the late 70’s and early 80’s. As a 12 or 13 year-old boy, I didn’t any more know the significance of a World War II veteran than I knew advanced calculus. But I knew that he had a presence that caused inattentive boys, despite the generational differences, to listen to what he had to say. And all these years later, his one-liners still creep into my conversation and I know that he made a great contribution to the foundation of my biblical understanding. At his funeral a couple of years ago, I came to realize what a true treasure this man was…….what a treasure his generation is. He served his family, his country, and his Lord in mighty ways, even going on mission trips in his advanced age to set up clean water systems in impoverished countries. Yeah, he’s a hero too. Did I thank him before he passed away? No.
And there’s my grandfather. He wore a hat like this one. I knew the color of the recliner that was his official spot in his home. I knew the brand of chewing tobacco he used. But I couldn’t even remember what was etched on the hat he always wore (I had to ask my mom today). I didn’t even know what his hat meant or where he served. But I never asked. He served on a repair ship during WWII. And now that he’s been gone for a few years, and the more I know now, I sure wish I could ask him some things today. And I wish I’d thanked him for his service.
The World War II generation of heroes has nearly left us. Korean and Vietnam vets are in their 70’s and 80’s. Behind them we have warrior heroes from the Gulf War, Iraq, Afghanistan, Middle East conflicts, and efforts to fight ISIS. Look for these courageous men and women while we still have a chance. Show your appreciation. Learn their stories so you’ll know what you’re appreciating.
My own past ignorance has led to regret, for the things I failed to say before it was too late. The ignorance of others would seem to lead to flag burnings and the Colin Kaepernick kneeling for the National Anthem controversy, and the past unacceptable treatment of soldiers returning home from Vietnam. Sure, those who died defending our freedom won those people the right to do these things. But a true understanding of the history of our military’s sacrifice should make these types of actions deplorable to all. Ignorance might be a reason for past mistakes. But it’s no excuse for future ones.
There are heroes all around us. Read their stories. Listen to their stories. Try to understand what they’ve endured. Don’t just claim to support them. Find the men and women in the hats. And thank them!
And on a day when we remember the fallen, also show respect to those who fought beside them as they fell.