Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Liberty's Spark

It’s sobering to realize that every year of your service someone in your community has died before their time. A crash in the landing pattern, a mishap during an airshow, a helo down in fog, a man sacrificing his own life to save his crew, the sickening report of a jet and her crew destroyed in a place you called home for four years.

And in the reflection, you realize that you had many a close scrape as well. The too-fast rendezvous through clouds in flight school, the screaming power call from the LSO as your plane crossed the carrier deck in stifling darkness, the discharge of static electricity between probe and basket with aviation fuel passing between them in the midst of a thunderstorm. Then again, the government does pay us $206 a month extra to fly. So we have that going for us.

This is an inherently dangerous profession. I don’t think anybody signs up not knowing that. In the first week of ground school, the instructors show video after video of airplane crashes. In one, a C-2 launches off a carrier, pitches severely nose up, stalls and plummets backwards into the sea. A strap was incorrectly secured, causing a rapid change in the center of gravity during the acceleration of a catapult launch. In another, a helo gets tangled in the nets around the landing area on the back of a destroyer, tipping over violently, sending rotor parts shooting in every direction.

Some people quit then and there, but most seem to take perverse pleasure in what they are about to undertake. Danger – the allure of young men (and increasingly women) throughout the ages.

Yet, there has to be something else driving volunteers from across the country, from every conceivable background and ethnic group, to sign up for something like aviation in particular, and the military in general. Someplace, somewhere, they were inspired. Inspired to such a degree that they put everything else aside, the rest of their life on hold, to venture forth into the unknown.

For some it is the faded picture of an unrecognizably young grandfather as he trundles off to war in the 1940s. For others, they just felt a compulsion to serve. Many merely need the money and discipline. Most could probably cite a combination of all three.

Inspiration is one of those things our society pays lip service to, but doesn’t always understand the true depth of. It doesn’t fully grasp the commitment required to see that spark of understanding through to a fulfilling conclusion. Initial conditions are important, but hardly sufficient for long term success. It takes something more, something greater than one’s self to bring true understanding to this process.

There is a place in the far southwestern corner of the United States that holds this depth in full focus. Here, you overlook a vista of magnificent glory; the shimmering Pacific below the cliffs to your right, a harbor full of sailboats to your left. Great men and women, heroes, surround you. Marble stones are lined up row upon endless row, some brothers long departed, others too recently. Old Glory whips in the brisk wind while you gaze out at the sinking orange sun, wondering.

Wondering who these people were. What that space between the two engraved dates really meant. Love, pain, tragedy, joy. But of course, you cannot know.

Inscribed are their travels – Rear Admirals in Korea mixed among Bos’ns mates from the Great War. A corporal here, a Colonel there. Many aged, long widowed wives buried beside. And the less faded stones with sharp black letters precisely carved – these men are much less aged, with desert countries conspicuously chiseled. Now among generations who were soldiers once, and young, too.

Yet even with the names right in front of you, there is a sense of anonymity for those resting. The egalitarian headstones for the lowest private to the oldest Admiral lets them forever be part of cooperative things like the Big Red One or the Wasp or the Third Marine Air Wing. These entities have known, even famous, histories, but the individual names of those who made them work have long faded from collective memory. And this is good. For the entity they all really sought to advance was that of America herself.

Ironically, a nation of individual liberties only thrives when some submit to collective direction. A desire to forgo personal glory for the advancement of a team. We know not the names of those charged with killing our most wanted enemy, but this only enhances their prestige. We give entertainment awards to actors we can readily name who portray the heroism of those we cannot. In a way, those gaining individual glory have received their rewards, but nothing more – those who carry on anonymously have their reward in the ongoing success of America and her ideals.

I have heard some complain that our society can name the highest paid baseball player, but not our last Medal of Honor winner. I can’t help but think this is an asset. It shows that there are men and women willing to save a friend or charge a hill not because it will bring them honor, but because it is the right thing to do.

We all know someone got the Medal of Honor, and we all know what that represents. That is enough, as men will only charge into the battlefields freedom requires when they know the buddy next to them will be there in their moment of most dire need. They need to believe heroes can be found among their peers. And the litany of past examples that swell our nation’s military cemeteries show that this belief is well founded.

Thus, generations past hold the key to our continued existence as a nation. Their experiences and examples are the kindling that perpetuates the spark of inspiration that keep the ramparts of liberty and freedom well manned.

Many have already watered the tree of liberty with their blood, and many more will as well in the years and decades to come. It is right and honorable that we remember those who sacrificed on our behalf. But we must also not forget to carry on the work which they so ably fought and died for. It is work well worth the effort.

1 comment:

Nicholas Darkwater said...

Well said. I know that I can never adequately research & appreciate the lives & examples of all of them, but I make it a point to discover those I can. You can find them in the oddest of places, but it often takes some effort. The real heroes are the ones who won't tell you.