One blazing afternoon this summer I was driving through what looked like G.I. Joe’s backyard. Mile after mile of forest sprinkled with tank crossing signs sped past the windows. Every so often through small clearings I could see groups of utilitarian, tan buildings. Most of the buildings were flanked by lines of gigantic armored vehicles and camouflaged behemoths. It all looked so generic and rigid, like the plastic army sets little boys play with. Everything was in such meticulous arrangement—as though a solemn young boy had decided their careful placement for his afternoon headquarters.
I was driving along the back access road of Camp LeJeune to visit a boy—as if any Marine could be called a boy. I had traveled 13 hours, along the hundreds of miles down to North Carolina from Ohio with his parents to meet him and his brother for a weekend of beachside relaxation. His parents were eager to see him before he would be deployed in the wee hours of the following Tuesday. One evening at our cottage after dinner we sat watching a slideshow. First we saw pictures from the boys’ childhood—birthdays, special moments, and crazy antics. Then we saw pictures of their time at boot camp—struggles, humiliations, perseverance. After that, there were a few pictures from the brother’s tour of duty in Iraq. Finally were the pictures of his homecoming—a jumble of arms locked in embrace after relief-filled embrace. That’s when I noticed the tears running down his mother’s cheeks. I watched as embarrassment, pride and sadness all flickered across her face. “These just make me think about how worried I was for you all the time while you were gone and how happy I was to have you back,” she said. His expression looked pained. “I’m sorry, Mom,” he said to her softly. He had sacrificed his time, put his life goals on hold and relinquished his comfort to serve his country. He was strong, disciplined and controlled, yet his heart was moved by the pain of his mother’s concern. Tears came to my eyes.
It is difficult to put into words exactly why moments like those have such impact on me. I feel most indebted to the men and women who defend our country because I have not made that sacrifice myself. They have disciplined their mind and strength to battle for my freedom. While on some days this may seem very tangible—as in the days following 9/11 as the war on Iraq began—most times this feels abstract. Sometimes I forget that men and women are constantly training, constantly striving for excellence in combat. And when I do think of action being done on my behalf, often I think of our victories as being won by the Army—the whole, the band of brothers. But why do we hold soldiers in such high esteem as individuals? Sometimes there may be a shining example of bravery or excellence in leadership, which merits celebration and recognition. But we also admire even the young man who has only worn the uniform for a short time. There is something unique within the character of a soldier that makes him worthy of admiration. Douglas MacArthur once said, “Build me a son, O Lord, who will be strong enough to know when he is weak, and brave enough to face himself when he is afraid, one who will be proud and unbending in honest defeat, and humble and gentle in victory.” It is because the very decision to volunteer himself for his country’s defense sets him apart from all other men in strength and character. Not only do these men and women possess more courage than I probably ever will, they possess a dignity reserved for those who take on this honorable duty. Yet, in the midst of this high calling, these soldiers are also our brothers, our uncles and our sons. They fight not only for the protection of their own rights, but also for the protection of the rights of their loved ones.
I was sitting on the cold tile floor of the Atlanta airport baggage claim terminal when I noticed them: a woman and a man in uniform standing with fingers intertwined, gazes locked. Their young daughter skipped into view and they broke away to join hands with her. They began a slow, hesitating walk around the baggage claim area, moving in wide circles. I could tell by their pace, the brave smiles and stolen glances that they were saying goodbye. I tried to imagine what thoughts and questions must be swirling in their minds. How would their little daughter react to having Daddy so far away for so long? When would they get to see each other again? What if they didn’t see each other again? My heart ached for them. Eventually the couple passed out of view and I was left alone with my thoughts. After sitting for a few minutes, I heard the sound of applause swelling through the concourse. I looked up to see a group of about thirty soldiers striding solemnly around a corner and across the floor directly in front of me. I watched as every person in sight sprang to their feet and heartily applauded them. I joined in, tears springing to my eyes. Later I tried describing the scene to my mother on the phone, barely getting a rough description through the lump in my throat. I had never been more proud of our soldiers than I was at that moment.
The heart of the true soldier is not rough but strong. He is not boastful, but he is proud. He holds himself to the rigid disciple that befits his calling and he sets a good example for his fellow soldiers in restraint. He acts with honor, remains faithful to his duty and protects his country with character and respect. And for these reasons we decorate them with our applause, salute them with our encouragement and aspire to be such men and women as they.
Allison Shuman is a sophomore from Mentor, Ohio, majoring in Journalism.