We owe a great debt to those who gave all
Sorrow so deep that it can be seen but not said. “Strong men grasped each other’s hand, none able to express their sympathy to the bereft except by look.” A tide of sorrow swept over the small village, a silence of sadness breached only by the occasional “outburst of anguish from some broken-hearted mother, wife, or friend.”
This gripping account of the emotional impact of losing a loved one in battle was written about a small village in Pennsylvania when word reached them of their grievous losses at Gettysburg. The same scenario played out 81 years later when word reached Bedford, Virginia, of the fate of their local military unit during the D-Day invasion at Normandy in 1944.
Bedford’s Virginia National Guard unit lost 19 of its 34 men on the first day of the invasion and four more in subsequent battle, a horrific fatality rate of nearly 70 percent. Accordingly, this small town in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains was selected to be the location of our National D-Day Memorial.
Most of us only experience warfare vicariously, through the service and sacrifice of others. But it is this community support, the understanding helping hand and sympathy of a friend or neighbor, which often allows a grieving family to survive one day and go on to the next.
My father served in WW I and my brother in the Korean conflict. Though neither saw combat, each of their coffins was draped with an American flag for having served during wartime. And like most American families, we were well aware of the higher price being paid by others for our freedom.
For my brother that realization focused on his best buddy from high school, Leigh Whitaker, who had a horrific term of service of Korea. An army medic, Leigh had been on the ground in Korea for only two weeks when his unit was overrun by a pre-dawn attack south of Seoul. Leigh initially escaped, but was soon captured and lined up with others for execution.
Leigh said that some of the American soldiers facing a machine gun began reciting the Lord’s Prayer. A last-minute reprieve saved them when the commanding enemy officer decided that they were more valuable as prisoners than dead. Leigh subsequently spent 37 agonizing months as a prisoner of war. He spent that time listed as MIA. He dropped to 85 pounds during his imprisonment.
I did not serve in the military but have such a strong connection to the stories of those who did that I am emotionally stirred by the service and sacrifice of others. And I feel a surge of patriotic pride when I salute the flag and sing our National Anthem. May that flag forever wave over the land of the free and the home of the brave.
All gave some, some gave all. May they rest in peace.
James F. Burns, having relocated from New England, is a retired University of Florida professor.
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