This past Thursday evening, the high school at which I work graduated 495 young men and women who, by all accounts, are ready to take the world by storm. I always find myself emotional at commencement exercises–there is no denying the years of hard work that have led students to that day.
This year was a particularly poignant ceremony for me–some of my students, whom I started with when they were 6th graders, marched across that stage at graduation. I had the privilege of helping another one of my students get to the stage and back to her seat without incident (I’ll admit, though, that I was beyond nervous about how it would go; now that it’s over, I’m so glad I could be a part of that moment).
In addition, our high school had an impressive number of students to enlist in the armed forces–with a record number of women. Some of those students already have earned impressive accolades, some have already left home, and some were presented with their diplomas at other events so they could get back to the business of serving our country. All of them, no doubt, are making their families, school, and community proud. And this year, as I entered the hall with my colleagues, all of us brimming with pride for our graduates, I thought back to the last commencement in which I participated–I was pregnant with Eli, knowing nothing more at the time than the pregnancy was off to a shaky start, and my brother was deploying to Afghanistan with the Marine Corps but I couldn’t be there to see him off. I struggled to keep my composure that day, as we could be given no guarantee that my younger sibling would come home to us safely, and I cursed my academic regalia for having no good place to hide my cell phone so I could keep up with my family as they sent me text message updates. This year, as we recognized our newly enlisted students, I smiled inwardly, thankful that my brother indeed came home to us in one piece, a little older and a little wiser than when he left us. The enormity of that blessing is not lost on me or my family. We know that many other families don’t get to welcome their loved ones home. They don’t get to release the breath they’ve been holding since the day they were deployed or relax because they arrived home safe and sound. They don’t get to wrap them in a warm embrace or pinch themselves that their loved one is really home. No, instead, they have to summon the strength–the likes of which they probably never knew they had–to get through one day at a time, supremely proud and painfully aware of the ultimate sacrifice their loved one made.
Here, in honor of that sentiment, is the piece I wrote for Memorial Day last year, with an update or two.
Originally published May 28, 2012.
Tomorrow is a hallowed day for Americans–a day for honoring the memory of our fallen brothers and sisters, those whose sacrifice cannot be measured.
For me, it is also a day of thanksgiving. While I remember those who lost their lives serving our country, I am also reminded that my family is blessed because my brother, a Marine, came home to us safely after two tours of duty.
Getting ready for deployment to Afghanistan – June 2011
My brother, BJ Isner – June 2011
Unfortunately, there are many American families living with the reality that their sons, husbands, and fathers, or daughters, wives, and mothers, are in harm’s way or won’t be coming home. Throughout the history of the United States, countless families have buried their loved ones, their heroes–our heroes–and others whose departed loved ones never made it home. We reserve the last Monday of May each year to commemorate their sacrifice and reflect upon those liberties many of us take for granted.
You see, for all the complaining we do here in America, I really believe we live in the greatest place on Earth. Our children have the opportunity to attend school regardless of their gender or creed. When I want to cook or get a drink or take a shower, I don’t have to think about where the water comes from or if it will be safe to drink. I don’t fall asleep at night to the sounds of gunfire and mortars, nor do I worry that my city will be home to a foreign occupation or that my house will be overtaken by rebels. I don’t fear for my children’s lives–or my own–and I am free to criticize my government without fear of retribution. I know that regardless of who assumes the office of United States President, there are certain rights guaranteed to me by the Constitution, no matter what some of those fear- and hate-mongering politicians would have us to believe. I am free to worship as I please, or I can refrain from worshiping.
In this country, my son has the right to live regardless of his Down syndrome diagnosis; in other parts of the world, children with disabilities do not fare so well–the Danish government, for example, has vowed to eradicate Down syndrome from their population by 2030, and that’s not because they have found a cure. Likewise, my daughter was not the target of elimination by virtue of her gender, nor was she shipped off to be raised by a family halfway around the world simply because she is female.
I’m not naive; I understand there are complex political and economic motivations behind every war. But I do believe the vast majority of those serving in the Armed Forces do so because they really believe in the ideals on which our nation was founded, on which she still stands today.
We are a generation desensitized to war. Many of us ignore it for the most part. But I can assure you that the families of servicemen and women do not ignore it. I can promise you that after burying their loved ones, those families that have been left behind do not ignore it, they can’t ignore it. But they can push aside political beliefs and ideologies, they can appreciate that regardless of one’s feelings about war, the members of our Armed Forces deserve our respect and support.
I have heard many people say they are sick of hearing that our military is overseas fighting for our freedom. They don’t buy it. And why should they? Most of us are so far removed from it that we can’t begin to wrap our heads around it. We were born free; we haven’t had to work for it. But we have a responsibility to remember this: these things are all wrapped up in unbelievable complexity. We may not know exactly what our military is doing overseas or at home, and we might not know why. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that these men and women–and their families–are making very real sacrifices so that you and I can continue going about our business, oblivious to where our water comes from. They do it so we can still fall asleep to the sound of crickets chirping, with threats of tyranny far from our minds. You can question the purpose of a war, but you cannot deny that our servicemen and women, along with their families, are giving the very best of themselves.
Take a moment this Memorial Day to think about the freedoms you have been afforded just because you were born in this great land. Be grateful. And say a prayer for the families carrying on without their loved ones. And while you’re at it, watch this.