Saturday, December 15, 2012

Devotion


"...from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion..."

Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg



One morning in the Army in 2000, I was inside the battalion headquarters of some forward support unit at Fort arson, Colorado. I was waiting for an appointment with an officer, killing time by walking around the front desk, looking at the pictures on the wall. These HQs are kept in immaculate condition, their floors waxed and buffed nightly, its surfaces dusted and polished.

Along the walls, I noticed, were dozens of photographs of uniformed soldiers, mostly junior enlisted, with small placards placed beside each of them. Every one of them was a Medal of Honor recipient, and as I looked at them one by one - very young men smiling perfunctorily in their Class A dress uniforms - I noticed that almost all of them had two things in common: they were medics and they had been awarded the medal, the highest honor in the military, posthumously. The details of their deaths were also remarkably alike: exposing themselves to enemy fire, they were killed while attempting to reach wounded fellow soldiers and to provide medical assistance.

Marines are fond of telling jokes about soldiers - and vice-versa. The rivalry among the branches of service is old and derived from a mixture of pride and jealousy. One of the jokes goes: "What's the battle cry of the U.S. Army? 'MEDIC!'" A combat medic is one of the most prized members of any unit. He is every soldier's friend, in case he may some day be his last resort. When a soldier under enemy fire calls out for him, a medic must, whatever the conditions, locate the soldier, treat him as much as physically possible with bandages and morphine, and return him to safety. They represent, I think, all that is best in soldiers.* But they also reveal all that is wrong about war. Whereas soldiers function essentially as targets for the enemy to shoot at, medics are there to patch the holes, bind the wounds, and repair the damage inflicted by war. It almost seems like a vicious cycle, war being the cause: the wounder and the wounded.

But the presence of all those medics on the walls of that battalion headquarters, killed in the line of duty - their duty being to save those who find themselves in the most unsafe place on earth - made me wonder at the true meaning behind the words Courage and Honor.

Abraham Lincoln understood the hollowness of even his own great words spoken at Gettysburg:

"We can not dedicate - we can not consecrate - we can not hallow - this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here."


It reminded me, standing in my BDUs in that battalion HQ, that funerals - and posthumous medals - aren't for the dead. They're for the survivors. The dead have no say in the manner of their disposition. They, as the saying goes, have their reward. And they can't have cared how, or even if, they'd be remembered. Those medics weren't thinking of posterity at the hour of their deaths, of having their names chiseled on some granite monument. And they certainly would never have dreamed of my chancing upon their photographs one bright and early morning in Colorado Springs.


*And conscientious objectors, who wanted to serve but who refused to kill for their country, were often employed as stretcher bearers.

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