KIMBALL, Neb. – There’s a colorful, hand-painted sign in the window of a downtown Kimball government building. It’s a long and narrow sign, bright red, white, and blue, and spells out a patriotic message: “We support our troops!”
It’s a heartfelt message. The sign was made by school kids as part of a class project not long after 9-11. People walk by that sign every day, and I doubt there’s a single person in town who hasn’t seen it and read those words. “We support our troops!”
As a message of support, it’s straightforward and sincere. It’s a slogan, short and to the point, as slogans must be, but it’s also shorthand for a deeper and more complex reality.
The message is more than the sum of four words, it has to be. But what is the deeper meaning in that colorful sign? What does it mean to support the troops? Why do we support the troops?
Not long ago, a local elected official emotionally and tearfully told me that she was so very grateful to live in a country where people die for her.
Is that why we support the troops? Because they die for us?
It’s clear that some people – perhaps many people – feel that way and believe that one job of the government is to gather up a bunch of folks who will die for them. But that’s not the way it works.
No American service member has ever fought for a king, or for the government, or for congress. No American serviceman has ever fought for their state or their town or their friends and neighbors or even for their family. A sincere desire to serve and protect these things – with the exception of a king, obviously – was certainly a major factor in every service member’s decision to serve. But those things are not what they served.
What all American service members have always formally and officially served are the principles and ideas and ideals that define our nation. American service members have always sworn an oath of service, and it has never been to our geographical or political nation. The oath has always been to something much larger than population and geography. Here is the oath of enlistment:
“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.”
This is the reality. America’s fighting men and women have not and do not fight for any individual. They have not and do not fight for any single person’s freedom or to keep them safe. Those things are for each individual sovereign American citizen to preserve. America’s fighting men and women fight to support and defend the Constitution, which codifies the heart of our nation – her principles and her ideals.
Our nation was founded on a set of principles. The bedrock principle, upon which everything America could be or should be depends, is the very first principle set down on paper by our founding fathers: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Before the rights comes the reality. Everyone is fundamentally, equally, human. None are fundamentally better or fundamentally worse. Each human life is of equal fundamental value. Period, full stop. No modifiers, no yabbuts.
That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among the people, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
Governments are instituted among men. Before there is government, there are the people. All people are created equal.
No, the job of the troops isn’t to die for individual people. The job of the troops isn’t to die. Some of them, however, do fall.
Many years ago, I flew a night Search and Rescue mission into a bombing range in North Carolina. Airborne and in route, the news was grim. An A-6 Intruder had been working the nuclear bull at Navy Dare, then gone off the air after making its final pass. The range tower crew had observed a fireball southeast of the target, on the run-in line. A single ejection seat beeper was transmitting, but there had been no communication with the crew.
Flying onto the range, we headed for a splash of yellowish fire, which was the crash site. As we came to a hover and slowly moved toward the fire I opened the aft door and took a close look. It was night, overcast, and very dark, and we were hovering over the Great Dismal Swamp, so as you can imagine, it was hard to make out a lot of detail. There was a fire, but not much of one, burning the reddish-orange color of jet fuel, probably consuming the last dregs of JP-5 from smashed fuel cells. The fire appeared to be burning in a crater, but it was hard to tell.
On the ground, the scene was one of utter devastation. It was immediately clear the jet had come straight down. There was just one big crater, about 60 or 70 feet in diameter. It was hard to tell how deep it was, even with the flashlight, but it seemed to go a long way down. The margins of the crater were scrunched up muck and earth, here and there emitting wisps of smoke or steam. The crater appeared to be empty, but there were little bits and pieces of smashed and mangled aircraft all over the place.
On the back side of the crater I began to pick my way through tangled brush and closely spaced trees toward the parachute I’d seen from the helicopter. Something caught my eye, a familiar object in an unsettlingly strange context. It was a hand. A left hand, palm up and very slightly clenched, neatly cleaved at the wrist, bloodless and intact. A gold wedding band on the ring finger, slightly flattened.
As I neared the place where chute and risers were tangled in tree branches, I stumbled over uneven ground. My flashlight revealed more debris: Steam gauges, shattered bits of circuit breakers and instrument panel switches, cockpit lighting fixtures. Off to one side was a torn ejection seat parachute container. Near the base of the tree was a smashed seat pan. Shredded charts littered the ground, scattered everywhere like confetti.
I looked back at the seat pan and the base of the tree, trying to wrap my mind around what I was seeing. It took a few moments, but finally enough mental gears made enough turns and what had been an oddly shaped jumble became the twisted torso of a man. No arms, no legs, no head. The torso still wore the torso portion of a flight suit, held firmly in place by the parachute harness, from which risers led to shroud lines and nylon twisted in the low-hanging branches above. The tangled chute hadn’t come down from above, it had been blasted up from the base of the tree. By peering closely, I could just make out the lettering on the sodden name tag on the flight suit. This was, or had been, the Bombardier/Navigator.
A few yards away rested another headless torso, very slightly more intact than the first, but naked, with no flight suit or harness to hide the pale ugliness of a death caused by high velocity traumatic disarticulation. This was, or had been, the pilot.
Two torsos made a body count of two, accounting for both crewmen, and put paid to the ephemeral, tiny hope for a less than completely awful outcome. I looked at my watch and saw that I’d been on the ground here only about 10 minutes. It seemed a lot longer.
There would be no rescue this night. I returned to the helicopter and we moved off into the somber darkness of a tragic night sky.
I strapped in and Zippoed a Camel to life. I felt a part of my heart tear loose and escape with the exhaled smoke. The crew chief handed me a canteen and I absentmindedly drained it. I must have been parched, but I felt no thirst, and no relief after drinking. I couldn’t figure out what to do with the empty canteen and shifted it back and forth from hand to hand until the crew chief gently took it away from me.
Sacrifice is a big thing. When people fall in service to the Constitution, they’ve traded every single thing they have or could ever have to support and defend the codified ideals which allow civilization to flourish and individual Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness to survive.
When we talk about supporting the troops, or about honoring the sacrifice of the fallen on Memorial Day, I think we have a responsibility to understand and think deeply about what the troops actually serve, what they risk, and what they are willing to sacrifice for.