Disclaimer: I am extremely tired and my brain is failing me as I write this, but I felt I MUST get this posted today, even if it is chock full of typos and lacks that certain flow...
During today's Veteran's Day service on the courthouse lawn in tiny Newton, IL, a group of American Legion members formed a color guard and fired a 21-gun salute. It was immediately followed by Taps played by trumpeters from the local high school band. As the wife of a currently deployed soldier, that ws the point at which I could no longer hold back the tears. And the thing about it was...it was FAR from perfect. With the exception of a couple of them, the all-male group was older--at least 60 I would guess. It had to be hard for some of them to stand the entire length of the program. Some were beginning to look a bit hunched over; others had that slight limp in their gate that only age can bring about. The actual firing of the volley of gunfire was nearly as synchronized as it could have been. The young trumpeter charged with the echo portion of Taps had a devil of a time staying on key. Perfection it was not. But in that imperfection was where I found the most beauty. Because deep down it represents what a veteran really is to our nation--a wholly imperfect human, who has the ability to see past those imperfections of both themselves and our nation and step up to accept that call to protect and defend our way of life.
But back to that color guard. I've seen some of the sharpest color guards made up of active duty soldier, sailors, airmen, marines, and coast guardsmen. Every one of them the relative same height and build. Every one of them impeccably dressed with boots and helmets so shiny that if you looked at them the wrong way, your vision would be shaken. Everyone of them so drilled in the technique that every single move they made was perfectly in step and synchronized as if they were one entity. Amazing to behold, but no less touching than the group I saw today and have seen at so many local funerals. It doesn't matter how sharp or how old the color guard is. The meaning behind that firing of 21 bullets into the air is the same--it is that final goodbye said the best way they know how.
It moves me every single time I witness. Yet, as a soldier's wife, it scares the hell out of me too. Ask any spouse of a deployed service member and I think you'd be hard pressed to find one that doesn't live with the overwhelming burden of "what if." What if I come home and there is a strange sedan parked in my driveway? What if I am playing with my kids, having a ball with them, and hear the doorbell ring and jump up and answer it only to find those men in dress uniform at the door with the news I never wanted to receive? What if I have to plan a funeral instead of a homecoming celebration? What if I am left to raise these children alone and outside of this Army lifestyle that I have grown so accustomed to? What if I am the one sitting at the cemetery, receiving that folded flag, hearing those 21 guns say their final goodbye? What if? What if? What if? It takes little to nothing to bring up that feeling of dread from the pit of my stomach. And it takes most of what I've got to push it back down and carry on with the day, the week...with my life.
But WE sign up for more years in. The Army doesn't force us to, we choose to. It so hard for civilians to understand sometime. WHY?! Why in the WORLD would you "re-up" knowing you'll have to go back to Afghanistan? And the truth is, no answer I can give them can really touch it properly. Words just don't work. It surely isn't for the pay, the benefits or unbelievably horrible hours. It's something much deeper that I still can't find the words for even as I write this. Not everyone who joins our military wants to, needs to, or is called to do it for a lifetime. That is perfectly fine. But I think that deep down, especially in times of war, the reasons they sign up and the reasons they stay in are the same. Sure, some may cite the bad economy as reason for joining/re-uping, but when you know you'll have to go back to combat, missing another year of your family, more than your wallet had to do with that decision.
Maybe what it boils down to is this: the thought of a 21-gun goodbye being said to them didn't provoke fear in them, as much as it did a sense of honor, duty, and love of fellow countrymen. Whether they served 2 years, 10 years, or 30 years, it matters not.
Which leads me to my final point...about 5 years ago there was an EXTREMELY well-written article in the American Legion magazine that shed some light on a growing--and in my opinion, troubling--trend: an increase in the number of people who say/display "we support our troops" while at the same time discourage those they love from serving in the military. The majority of those they discussed were parents of graduating high school seniors who claimed great respect for the military but chose to actively discourage their own children from joining the military. They were firm on their stance that there were "better options out there for my kid." Or in other words, let those that have no other options be the ones to join and rest assured I will support them.
To them I say this: Fear not the prospect of a 21 gun goodbye; rather smile through your tears of worry and prospective grief and take comfort in knowing that someone you love is willing to put themselves in harm's way for people they have never met. There is no more noble a calling in my book than to just that.
A 21-gun goodbye--no matter who does it or how well they do it--is a most beautiful thing. And this American will be grateful for everyone of them ever done.