Memorial Day, USA. Parades, speeches, shows of support for the troops, followed by backyard picnics, time with the family, perhaps even the beginning of vacations and summer leisure.
Well, for some of us. On this Memorial Day the family of Deborah Johns is celebrating and thanking God for her son William's safe return from Iraq. He has just finished his third tour there as a Marine and received a well-deserved hero's welcome Saturday when he arrived in San Francisco.
For my sister-in-law, my nieces, and our entire extended family, there is a different mood, as this Memorial Day marks the end of my brother-in-law David's first week in Iraq. His first tour as a U.S. Army pilot is just beginning as is the long year of waiting and worrying.
I haven't met William Johns, but we certainly know a lot about him. In March, I interviewed his mother, Deborah, for this column, and she gave us quite an insight into the pride and fear that a mother feels as a son goes to war.
As a single parent she had wanted William, who was a top-rated baseball player, to go to college on an athletic scholarship, a dream that crashed when William sat out his junior year due to an injury. That year William became interested in the military, and decided he wanted to become a Marine.
Deborah eventually signed his enlistment papers and after graduation from high school William left for boot camp, then infantry training, and ultimately was assigned to Iraq where he was a sniper.
While he was gone, on his first tour, then his second, then his third, Deborah became a vocal and active supporter for our troops and a welcome counterpoint to the negativity of the mainstream media.
She and her friend Colleen Tanenbaum organized the first meeting for Marine Moms in Northern California, she worked with her church and a local radio station holding donation drives for the troops, and she encouraged people to put yellow ribbons on their trees to support them.
News reports say that even though he has served three tours in Iraq, William still has three years to go on his enlistment and conceivably could go back again. It is my hope that he won't have to and I'm sure his family feels the same way.
Deborah's description of her son leads me to believe that he probably is very much like my brother-in-law David, and it appears there is much the two warriors share, including their faith and sense of duty to their country and freedom.
David has been in the Army for more than 20 years, both active and reserves. He has not been in combat previously, but he is not the kind of man or soldier to shirk his duty. His absence will be felt deeply, but I also know him to be the kind of man who wants to be able to look inside himself and know that he did what was necessary for his country and family when he was needed.
David is a quiet and dignified man of enormous personal character and faith, a man I consider to be a born leader, and most certainly the kind of man I would have been proud to fly with in Vietnam.
He is simply one of the most competent individuals I have ever met, has an understated sense of humor, and a way of quickly seeing through the phony trappings of life to get to the reality that lies below.
I hadn't thought he would be in the rotation to go to Iraq, but I have to also say that I wasn't all that surprised when I heard he was going. David's sense of duty and responsibility is such that he would never allow someone else to fill his slot, nor would he leave the defense of his country overall, or his family in particular, to others.
I don't know where David is assigned yet, or how to get in touch with him, but when I do you can be assured that I will be in contact with him often. I already hear regularly from Marines and other service members who are in Iraq, some serving with units I served with in Vietnam.
Their input is invaluable to understanding and appreciating all that is going on in that war zone. I am anxious to hear my brother-in-law's take on the Surge and the mission there overall. One thing I will know without question is that whatever he can tell me, within the confines of mission security, will be honest.
I have tried to put myself into David's shoes mentally and remember what my first weeks in a combat zone were like. It was blindingly hot when I got to Vietnam, a few weeks after the onset of the dry season, and I was stationed near the DMZ on a coastal plain that probably has more in common with deserts than jungles.
Sand, wind and constant oppressive heat are my memories of that time and that much I share with him. It will take him a few weeks at the least to acclimate to the heat, and then he will have to deal with work days that regularly last up to 16 hours and sometimes even longer.
He will face hours, perhaps days, of sheer boredom, interrupted by minutes of violence of a kind that even television images can't accurately portray. I have no doubt that he will rise to the challenges he faces. He is that kind of man.
Beyond that, our tours probably will have other areas of commonality, and it is my hope that when he returns we will have times to talk about these things as one veteran to another. I have always been immensely proud to have David as a brother-in-law. In fact, I have been very lucky across the board to have inherited a family full of in-laws much like him.
But a transition is underway, one which will take many months, perhaps even a year or more, and when it is completed, in addition to being my brother-in-law he will be my brother-in-arms. That is a special distinction.
Later today I will go the center of my community, join up with other veterans, and march in our annual Memorial Day Parade. I will take part in memorial services to previous generations of veterans, and listen to the speeches and the roll call of those who died fighting for us. But my mind will be elsewhere, somewhere in the sands of Iraq, where my brother-in-law has answered the call and taken up the cause of freedom.
Memorial Day, USA. Parades, speeches, backyard picnics, even the beginnings of vacations and summer leisure. For some of us.
But for many American families, represented by the two warriors I write of today, Memorial Day will forever mean something a bit different, and more precious.
For the Johns family, their warrior, who has given so much of himself for his country, so selflessly, has returned, and for now the war and the wait are over.
For David's extended family, the war and the wait have only just begun. We will be thinking of him today, as we will throughout his tour, and we will say silent prayers for his successes, his safety, and his return to his family and country.
Such is the price of war. Such is the cost of freedom.
Monday, May 28, 2007