They say art imitates life. Perhaps that’s the reason it’s easy to find explanations of why men and women put their lives on the line for their country and their comrades.
The season finale of the television show “ER” featured one of the characters being killed by a roadside bomb while he was serving in Iraq. It was his second tour in that war-torn country.
Earlier in the show’s run, Michael, an ROTC graduate and Reserve trauma doctor, had been called up for duty in Iraq. After his first deployment, he got married to another doctor at the hospital that is the setting for the medical drama. The happy couple began shopping for a new home and was looking forward to a lifetime of the trials of everyday living. Except that Michael felt compelled to return to Iraq to help save lives. His wife was unsympathetic, telling him he had a responsibility to his family now that he was married. Undeterred, he returned to Iraq to meet his destiny.
His wife could not understand the bond between those who face danger together on a daily basis, how that commitment to one another can trump all other considerations. How else can we explain how a soldier can leave family and friends to face uncertain dangers, even the possibility of death?
For fiction writers, it’s easy to put words to such sacrifice. For men and women facing that prospect in real life, it’s often more difficult, but those who have served in uniform understand the feelings. They know that for all the words written about sacrifice, duty, honor and all the other noble traits of our military members, unless you’ve been there or lost a loved one who was, the rest of us can never truly know how they feel, how they would lay down their lives for their brothers and sisters in arms.
Too many times we never learn the final thoughts of these men and women as they fight to protect their friends under fire. Sometimes they don’t even know those they risk their lives to save, but they know that if the situation were reversed, they could count on other soldiers to save them. It’s that knowledge that allows soldiers to face uncertainty in battle.
When Master Sgt. Gary Gordon and sniper teammate Sgt. 1st Class Randy Shugart volunteered to land and provide cover fire for Chief Warrant Officer Michael Durant’s downed Black Hawk helicopter crew in Somalia in 1993, they didn’t know when they might be relieved or reinforced. But they knew there were badly wounded troops on the ground who needed their help. Both were killed by Somali fire; their sacrifice is credited with saving Durant’s life. Both snipers received the Medal of Honor for their actions.
In a similar fashion, Sgt. 1st Class Paul Smith literally put himself in the line of fire near Saddam International Airport near Baghdad in April 2003. He and 16 other Army engineers were constructing a makeshift POW holding area when they spotted a number of Iraqi soldiers.
A firefight ensued during which a Bradley Fighting Vehicle and an M-113 Armored Personnel Carrier joined the troops. The Bradley ran low on ammunition and pulled out of the fight. The M-113’s crew was wounded and evacuated under fire.
The battle turned against the outnumbered Americans until Smith manned the machine gun atop the abandoned APC and provided covering fire for his men. With another soldier keeping the machine gun supplied with ammunition, Smith engaged multiple targets until he was killed as the battle subsided.
By keeping the Iraqi fire focused on himself, Smith enabled other troops to maneuver against the Iraqi forces and defeat them. Before shipping out to Iraq, Smith wrote his parents a letter in which he pledged to do whatever was necessary for his boys to come home. That April morning he honored his pledge.
Words can never properly convey the emotions that propel soldiers into harm’s way, but words are all we have to recognize their sacrifice. And so, on this Memorial Day weekend, we offer these few words as a gesture of our gratitude to those who have given the last full measure of themselves in service to our nation and our ideals. May their sacrifice never be forgotten.