. . . and the familes.
Maybe all soldiers in combat don't pay a heavy price, but some do, and every family of a combat soldier does. The wives and husbands, sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, spend their days living with the dread of seeing the Army staff car pull up into the yard. Every news report of casualties - a rocket attack in Ghazni, a suicide bomber in Baghdad - hangs over them, day and night, until the names are released. Was it him? Was he on the chopper, in the HMMWV, on the patrol that got ambushed? And when a soldier does go down, he pays the "last full measure of devotion" then and there. For the family, the butcher's bill is presented on the installment plan. The family pays with every missed birthday, every question from the young child, "When is Daddy coming home?", every lonely night with an empty bed serving as a perpetual memorial, every pang of loss down through the years.
In the town where I live, every Memorial Day, Main Street and the town square are lined with plain white wooden crosses about three feet high, each surmounted with a small US flag, and each with the name and war of a local son who died in one of America's foreign wars. Even though it's a small town, we have enough war dead to line both sides of several miles of road with crosses spaced 20' or so apart. Family names common in the area leap out as you drive by, reminders of sacrifices gone by and pain still remembered.
And sometimes that pain goes on for many long years. We have another Memorial Day tradition here: Every year, there's a commemorative gathering in the town square, usually in the week before Memorial Day so that the middle school can attend. There are speakers on the meaning of the day, usually military and political figures, and an invocation by one of the local preachers. Then the Honor Roll of fallen heroes is read, and it takes a while. Family members sometimes step forward and read the name of their loved one, and occasionally share a memory. I try to attend whenever I can, out of respect for the fallen and their families.
One year, not too many years ago, an old, old woman was seated behind the lectern, sitting in her weelchair, but dressed in her "Sunday best." She had been brought from the local nursing home to participate in the ceremony that day as one of the family members who came to remember their dead. She was frail, and on oxygen, and she struggled to stand when the time came to read the name of her lost soldier. She told us that when she was a little girl, her father had gone away to fight in World War I. She remembered lying in bed at night and taking comfort in hearing his footsteps, solid and heavy, as he walked down the hall to his bedroom. One night, after she had gone to bed, she heard his footsteps in the hall for the last time. He came into her room that night and told her that he was leaving for France, that he had to go away for awhile, and that he loved her very much. He never came back. He died in the Meuse-Argonne. As a little girl, she said, all the while he was gone, and even after she learned that he was dead, she would listen for his footsteps in the hall. And now, she told us, as she lived out her last days alone in a nursing home, after a lifetime of tending her family and raising her children, she would still sometimes try to catch the sound of his footsteps as she went to sleep. A long and full lifetime later, longer and richer than most, she still missed her father and, at times, wept for his loss. And she wept then, as she read his name.