This is Memorial Day Weekend in the United States, a weekend of remembrance for those who not only placed themselves in the breach for freedom around the world (and here at home), but also lost their lives in defending it.
My books are almost all dedicated in some small or large part in honoring those who serve in military, police, and fire-fighting professions, because I feel strongly that there is no sacrifice greater than one's own life, and these people deserve our respect, our honor, and our thanks, whether they lived through their terms of service or not.
In my novel Critical Mass, I wrote an exchange between two characters that stands out to me as a statement at the heart of what I believe to be the mission of our men and women of the armed services. Here, I post it again, for the benefit and in honor of those whose blood has watered our Tree of Liberty:
Jimmy sat on the porch, watching the dull routine of the afternoon in front of him. The air commandos not on guard sat in the shade of Nadia’s lawn for lunch, weapons within easy reach. Those on duty at the detention shacks stood their watches, ever vigilant against any attempted breakout. The occasional fly or wasp buzzed by, its hypnotic drone lulling the man in the wooden chair. The pain med Watts had given him was just starting to do its work, and the ache in Jimmy’s shoulder was finally at a tolerable level. But on the downside, that warm, sleepy feeling Jimmy hated so much was just beginning to creep in and steal the rest of his afternoon.
The old warrior’s eyes had just drifted shut when the screen door opened with a protest of springs. The steps on the porch were light and favored one side. The soft scent in his nostrils confirmed the identity of the other party. “Afternoon, Miss Paine,” he mumbled through the painkiller’s haze. Another smell, cool and yeasty, wafted to him and he held out a hand to receive the cold bottle offered, his eyes still closed.
He couldn’t resist his own grin at the smile in her voice. “You must have sonar, you old coot.” The chair next to Jimmy’s creaked as Jenna settled into it. She clinked her bottle against his and took a pull.
The first swallow went down good, so he took a second before speaking. “How’s the leg?”
“Better, thanks. A little stiff, but I can work with it.”
“Good. Wouldn’t want ya to miss out just ’cause ya got a little hitch in your git-along.”
“Jimmy, I wouldn’t miss this if I had a whole leg off.”
“Big deal, eh?
Jenna looked out at the yard for a while before answering. “They lied to me. I don’t like being lied to.”
“But do you still believe in what they want? World unity and Kumbaya, and all that crap?”
Jenna tensed and clenched her jaw at the offhand remark. “When you kill someone, what do you feel?”
Jimmy bristled at the question. “You’re kidding, right?” Feel? How the hell am I supposed to feel? What kind of stupid question was that?
Jenna’s eyes narrowed with passion. “I want to know what you feel when you pull a trigger and put a bullet into another person, and let their life spill out. In whose name did you do it? Yours? Your country’s? And how did it solve anything?” She looked away. “That wasn’t even enough, was it? You had to teach others how to kill, too. For a border. An imaginary line on a map.”
She paused long enough to take a swallow. “So before you label someone’s beliefs as ‘crap,’ just think about what it felt like every time you killed someone for that imaginary line.”
The hair stood up on Jimmy’s neck. I swear, if you were a man, I’d pin your ears back… As it was, there was no way he was going to let that one go. It had been a long time since he needed to shift into sergeant mode, but the shift was as smooth as his last class of recruits.
“Young lady.” He struggled through gritted teeth. “I didn’t kill anyone for a line. I killed to save an idea. That idea was that free men should be able to defend themselves from oppression and tyranny and help other men to live free as well. Them poor jackwagons who stood in the way of that idea were the ones I killed. And to tell you the truth, I don’t feel a damned thing for ’em. That line on the map you’re goin’ on about is the line that says, ‘on this side you’re free to choose your own destiny.’ And I’ll spill as much blood as I have to to make sure it stays where it’s at.”
Jimmy sniffed and set his bottle on the small table between them. “Look at you, giving me the ‘baby-killer’ speech. How many bodies have you left behind? Why don’t you tell me what you felt when you stood over the bodies of the people you laid out for a lie?”
He gave her a cold smile then and watched the steel in her eyes melt away. “I’ll grant you, hon, you ain’t any worse than me. But you sure as hell ain’t any sight better.”
Leaning his chair back, he said, “Now, I’d be willin’ to bet your vision for this earth ain’t too far from mine. We just ended up thinkin’ about it from some different places.” He fixed her eyes again with his. “I do know if I’d have had a half-dozen more of you on my team, we’d have buried less of our boys and more of theirs.”
Jenna broke her gaze away and looked across the yard. In the silence that followed, Jimmy imagined he could hear the gears working inside her head. He just hoped that, whatever she decided in the end about whatever it was she was pondering, it wouldn’t affect her edge when it came down to brass knuckles and billy clubs.
Things were going to get bad enough as it was.
In my research for Becoming NADIA, I came across the inspiration for men like Jimmy DeBartolo. General William "Wild Bill" Dean commanded the first American force rushed to Korea after the North Korean Army stormed across the border into the South and laid siege to Taejon. General Dean's actions in leading his men from the front earned him a Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest award our country can give to its warriors. He was truly a soldier's soldier, and his men loved him as much as he loved them.
We must, in between the barbeques and picnics, take a moment to solemnly remember those who came back home in flag-draped coffins, whose lives were laid down not for glory, nor of pride, but for the concept that men should live free to make their own destinies. They weren't perfect, nor sinless, but they were the ones who stood in the breach for us. We owe them much more than we could possibly repay.