Did you know that today marked the ninth anniversary of the start of the war in Afghanistan? I'm a bit ashamed to admit that I don't remember the beginning of the war. I was a senior in high school, less then a month after 9/11, but I haven't the faintest recollection of learning that a war had begun. I do, though, remember fear: fear that a draft would be instated, fear that my friends, just months from graduation, would be the first to be pulled into service.
The draft never happened, but some of them still made the voluntarily decision to serve. A program booklet at our commencement listed graduates' post-high school plans; the list of those headed into military service wasn't long, but it was substantial. In a small Ohio town, it was the best opportunity some of them had to make lives for themselves. And others? others had spent their whole lives dreaming of it.
Before I left D.C. last month, I made a visit to Arlington National Cemetery, where some of our country's most dedicated servicemembers are buried. I'd been meaning to go for awhile, in part because I think every American who has the chance to do it ought to, out of respect. And in part because I once knew someone who's now buried there.
We weren't friends, not really. I couldn't claim to have been his friend - the biggest contribution he made to my life was teaching me the meaning of a verrrry unsavory slang term - but I remember him well, a loud, redheaded football player with big ideas & kind words. When Student Council elections came up, he ran for president; if he didn't win, he said, he'd be graduating early & shipping out for the Marines. And when he didn't win, enlist & ship out he did. He died four years ago this month, at age 24, of injuries sustained while defusing a roadside bomb. He was serving his third tour of Iraq.
As one of the few people from my high school living in close enough proximity to visit, I promised myself I'd make it to Arlington to pay my respects, not just for me but, I liked to think, partially on behalf of a city devastated by the death of a hometown hero. I was, in a word, overwhelmed. Rows & rows of headstones, as far as the eye can see, in all directions. Total verbal silence from visitors, even the smallest of children. Endless names of real people, of men & women who died for what they believed in.
The headstones at Arlington are numbered from the back, & when you head into the visitors' center, you can print off a sheet of paper with a number & a map telling you exactly how to get to the headstone you're looking for. I came upon his grave from the back, just rows from where a few members of the military were paying their respects to a recently buried comrade. I was afraid to be near them, afraid I didn't deserve to be there while they were. After all, what have I given our country? So I made eye contact with them, somewhat embarrasedly, & nodded in their direction, hoping it would convey the respect & deference I felt. They nodded back; I sat in the grass at my old classmate's grave to cry, to take it all in, to realize with shock that he was two years younger when he died than I am now. And then I left a rock atop his headstone, because that's what Jews do, & I walked back to the Metro in silence, & carried on with my everyday life - went to Starbucks, hung out with friends, applied for jobs. Kept being me.
I don't agree with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Still, I balk at accusations that those who oppose the wars are by default disrespectful of those who serve in them. From the bottom of my heart, I respect our members of the military - the work they do, the reasons they do it, the sacrifices they make. It's a funny thing to say, I guess, a line most people reserve for Jesus, but to me, it makes more sense in a place like Arlington: They died so that we may live.
[In other words: Have you thanked a servicemember lately?]