Memorial Day, 2007
A couple of months ago I was at Detroit Metro and two very young soldiers timidly approached me. They were changing planes there, but the airport deeply confused them. When and where was their flight? Their brows knitted beneath extreme crewcuts (they were the victims of an overenthusiastic army barber of a sort I well recollect). Did they have to pick up their luggage and get it on the new flight? I asked one to show me his ticket, then took him over to the screen at the terminal and showed him how to read it. They had about 20 minutes, though their gate was a good distance away.
I found the luggage sticker on the back of the ticket and showed the young man (my son’s age) that it was marked with his final destination– it had been checked through. They both seemed enormously relieved, and the anxiety drained away. They stood a little straighter in their khakis. I figured it was their first time flying a civilian airliner with a plane change.
They thanked me and shook my hand. I said, no, thank you for your service.
One looked up. “It’s just a job, sir,” he observed before heading off.
It is just a job. But it isn’t. It is about the nation in a way that most jobs are not. It is about life and death in a way that most jobs are not. It is a heavy responsibility both for the “employee” and for the “employer” (i.e. for you and me).
There are lots of stories of heroism and tragedy to be told on this Memorial Day. You have to read the local newspapers, usually, to hear about them.
AP reported on May 27, on the funeral held on a gray, rainy day in Tipton, Iowa for Specialist David Behrle, age 20. An Iraqi guerrilla detonated a roadside bomb under his vehicle on May 19:
‘ The body of Behrle, who was 20, arrived in his hometown yesterday morning. Hundreds of supporters stood at attention despite heavy rains. Patriot Guard members accompanied the hearse, which was equipped with an Army seal on the side, to Fry Funeral Home in Tipton.
More than 300 American flags were donated by local businesses. They were distributed to the crowd before the hearse arrived.’
And there was this, closer to home for me, from Mike Wilkinson of the Detroit News. Casey Zylman was 23, from the small town of Coleman, Michigan, about 120 miles northeast of Detroit. He briefly went to Northwood University in Midland, but perhaps dropped out for lack of funds. His football coach, Joe Albaugh, said he thought Casey was planning to use the GI bill to pay for his college when he got out. He wanted to be an accountant. Wilkinson writes:
‘ COLEMAN, Mich. — Casey Zylman was the kind of student others looked up to, a leader and athlete who cared about his fellow students. For his teammates, he was a motivator. “He wouldn’t let you quit,” said Joe Albaugh, the football coach at Coleman High School, where Casey graduated in 2003. He was an all-conference offensive lineman his senior year. . .
Zylman also played baseball at Coleman High, where he graduated with fewer than 100 others. He held a position on the executive committee of the student council. Mary Pitchford, who was principal at Coleman Middle School when he was a student, remembers Zylman. “He was just kind, caring, polite,” she told The Detroit News on Friday.
. . “Coleman is a very small community,” Pitchford said. “I’m sure there is great sadness, especially for Casey’s family.” ‘
It isn’t about politics, today. They served our country, they gave us everything; they had nothing left to give after that. The press makes no mention of their girlfriends, their brothers and sisters, the people now less whole than they were. There was a downpour at David Behrle’s funeral. Three hundred American flags were passed out in the rain. People stood at attention, dripping wet. He was 20. Casey Zylman, 23 was a motivator. He wouldn’t let his team mates on the gridiron quit. He wanted to go to college, to be an accountant, but maybe needed money for tuition and so joined the military. His audits would have been thorough, upright. They did their job.
Our job as the citizens of a democratic Republic is to ensure that we only ask them to risk everything (everything) when our Republic is genuinely in danger. Not for any other reason. They did their jobs. “It’s just a job, sir.” Have we done ours?