|A few short months ago, I returned to the United States from an
assignment with NATO forces in Bosnia and Herzegovina. As a Marine Corps
Officer, I spent eight months there, working to assist in the reconstruction of
the country's economic, health, education, infrastructure and governing
systems. It represented a unique educational experience as well as a profound
opportunity to reflect upon the values and systems under which we live here in
the United States.
Halfway through my tour of duty in the Balkans, I was afforded
a few days "R&R", or vacation, and planned a short visit to Vienna. While
waiting for the flight from Sarajevo to Vienna, I found myself in a
conversation with a gentleman named Peter. Peter was departing Sarajevo after
gathering research for a book he was writing. As we stood waiting for the
flight, Peter pointed to my passport, and said: "Do you know what that is
worth?" I looked at him, then at my passport. "I'm afraid I don't
understand," I replied. He glanced at me with a puzzled look, then laughed. "Of
course," he said, "Forgive me, I forgot. You Americans do not realize the
blessings you have. So many in this world envy you...and you do not know what
Peter pointed to the people who filled the terminal and waited
for the same flight. There, in the fog of tobacco smoke and the physical
evidence of damage caused by the recent war, many travelers looked sad, saying
goodbye to loved ones and friends. As we watched, Peter continued his comments.
"You see, freedom is what these people cherish. It is such a dream for many.
Here, as is the case in many countries, families are willing to send their
young away to freedom, in spite of the pain. You Americans are a lighthouse
beacon for freedom, and I wonder if you realize this."
Our flight to Vienna lasted about one hour. As we parted
company in Vienna's airport, I thanked Peter for the opportunity to chat.
He reminded me of our earlier discussion. "Let's hope that we never forget
what freedom means, my friend," he said. I noted his words with a haunting mix
of encouragement and concern.
Several months later, my NATO mission compete, I returned to
the United States. One snowy, frozen morning in January, while driving past the
Arlington National Cemetery, I recalled the words spoken to me by Peter.
"Freedom." Suddenly, I stopped alongside the cemetery. Under the cold,
snow-covered ground of this cemetery, what did freedom mean? More importantly,
what did it mean above the ground, today? Were the sacrifices by those who died
as a result of service to our nation forgotten? Who would step forward to
carry-on the responsibility of protecting freedom?
General Douglas MacArthur once said, "The soldier, above all
other people, prays for peace, for he must suffer and bear the deepest wounds
and scars of war." Yes, this is true, but I also think that everyone suffers
when war invades their families, their safety, their future. Even today, people
around the world pay dearly because of cruelty and oppression inflicted upon
them by dictators and thugs who show little regard for humanity. And yet,
regardless of the debates trying to decipher which part of the world or which
crisis is justified in receiving our assistance, our nation's sons and
daughters still go to serve. In this age when service is all-volunteer,
Americans journey at great personal risk and sacrifice to help others less
fortunate. To do what they consider their duty.
I would be remiss if I failed to mention the significance of a
trend in that many Americans of non-military status were working alongside NATO
in Bosnia and Herzegovina. There were foreign service officers, law enforcement
officers, firefighters, teachers, attorneys, doctors, nurses, and many other
members of non-profit organizations and U.S. departments and agencies. They all
had one thing in common: They chose to help the community and build a better
world. In the face of today's splurge of multi-million dollar buyouts,
contracts, endorsements and signing bonuses, there are those who still go
quietly and diligently to serve the People.
Memorial Day will soon be upon us, and it's important
that this holiday represents more than the mere opening date of the
neighborhood swimming pool. Memorial Day signifies all the valor, consequence
and memory of the sacrifices made by countless men and women who have served
our nation. And gave everything they could. It is a focal point for Americans
to recall and re-commit to the enduring values of service to the community,
whether that community is local, national or even global.
On Monday, Memorial Day, wouldn't it be fitting and
appropriate if Americans all around the world stopped for one minute at 3:00PM
local time in order to reflect on the sacrifices made by others for our nation?
And wouldn't it be something if we could each consider what we can do for
our community and for families around the world? The world is looking for our
lighthouse beacon...we must not let the light of freedom die, and we must not
forget those who have given so much to make it glow.