Today is Veterans Day in the U.S. and Remembrance Day in the UK. At the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the entire country stops, sits in two minutes of total silence, and remembers the men and women who died on their behalf.
As it happened, I observed the silence in the lobby of my health club, next door to my office. As I sat, looking down at my steepled hands, I thought about the young men and women who got strafed at Dunkirk, shelled in Hurtgen Forest, dive-bombed in the middle of the Pacific, and bayonet-charged on Okinawa . . . so that I could recline in a steam room and then swim laps, in the middle of my day of sitting at a desk manipulating symbols.
I thought in particular of my Grandfather, a Coast Guard Combat medic in the Pacific, wading ashore as part of six murderous beach landings, saving the lives of his wounded friends and somehow surviving it all himself. And then marrying his sweetheart, my Grandmother, on shore leave. It is my custom to say the following to him once a year, and I say it now publicly: Grandpa, thanks for taking four years out to save civilization in the twentieth century. (His usual reply: "Well, I did do it all by myself.")
But my words are weightless things. Here are some excerpts from letters home from U.S. soldiers who have died in Iraq (published by the New York Times this year and last.)
Excerpts from letters to his parents from Pfc. Moisés A. Langhorst of the Marines. Private Langhorst, 19, of Moose Lake, Minn., was killed in Al Anbar Province on April 6 by small-arms fire.
After standing in the guard tower for seven-and-a-half hours this morning, we went on our first platoon-size patrol from about 1200 to 1700. It was exhausting, but it went very well.
. . .
We toured the mosques and visited the troublesome abandoned train station. The people were friendly, and flocks of children followed us everywhere.
When I called you asked me if Iraq is what I expected, and it really is. It looks just like it does on the news. It hardly feels like a war, though. Compared to the wars of the past, this is nothing. We're not standing on line in the open - facing German machine guns like the Marines at Belleau Wood or trying to wade ashore in chest-deep water at Tarawa.
. . .
While not always pleasant, I know this experience is good for me. It makes me appreciate every little blessing God gives me, especially the family, friends and home I left behind in Moose Lake.
Excerpt from an e-mail message to her cousin on his wedding day from Sgt. First Class Linda Ann Tarango-Griess of the Army. Sergeant Tarango-Griess, 33, of Sutton, Neb., was killed on July 11 in Samarra by an improvised explosive device.
So today is your big day? Wow! It seems like just yesterday that I was making you peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and Malt-O-Meal. We experienced a lot together as we grew up and for the life of me, I can't think of a time that you and I never got along. IS THAT NORMAL?
I never thought I would see the day that you settle down and get married, but here you are. You couldn't have picked a more wonderful person than Rachel. She is very sweet, very giving and most important, she loves you. Be good to her. I am sorry I can't be there to share in your day, but here I am in hopes that one day, these people will have the chance to be as happy as you. Just know that I AM with you … just close your eyes, place your hands on your heart, and you will feel me there.
Excerpts from letters to his 2-year-old son and his wife from Sgt. Christopher Potts of the Army. Sergeant Potts, 38, of Tiverton, R.I., was killed on Oct. 3 in Taji by small-arms fire.
Hi my big guy. How are you? I miss you bad. I miss things like you calling for me in the morning when you hear me in the kitchen, or when you come home at the end of the day. I also miss cooking for you and Mom. But most of all I miss your big hugs. I enjoy hearing your voice on the phone and seeing the pictures you draw for me. I'm sorry for not writing you till now. But the days are very long here, and we only get about four-and-a-half hours sleep a night. I got up a little early to write this because I know you need your own letter too.
Hi my love. Well, where should I start? First we left Kuwait after being issued a combat load of ammo - M-16 ammo, grenades, smoke grenades, grenade-launcher ammo and C-4. I knew that night that this is for real. Some people paced, some people slept, some of us had to write the just-in-case letters, some just sat. The letter-writing was a real hard thing to do, it definitely makes you aware of the situation and your life. But you'll never have to read it - unless you want to when I get home. It's weird because I'm not afraid of what might happen, or the pain of it. I'm just afraid of not being able to see you again.
The first leg of the trip through the desert was really bad. There were children of all ages from God knows where begging for food and water. The dust was blowing all over them, and some had torn outgrown clothes, and some were barefoot. I looked over at my driver and we were both crying after a few miles.
I hope today I can call. I miss you so much that as I write this part my eyes are running. The TV in the mess hall said you got snow yesterday. I wish I was there to shovel.
Excerpts of letters from Army Capt. Joshua T. Byers, 29, of Anderson, S.C., who was killed on July 23, 2003 when a bomb detonated under his vehicle.
Dear Mom and Dad,
A couple of days ago, my squadron commander told me that I would be taking command of Fox Troop in June, after all . . . I have to admit that I am really nervous and just pray that I am up to the task out here to lead 120 men in combat operations. I will give them everything I have to give I love them already, just because they're mine. I pray, with all my heart, that I will be able to take every single one of them home safe when we finish our mission here.
. . .
In the past two nights we've been attacked each night while on patrol. No casualties for us . . . I see more bravery in a day here than I had seen in my entire life prior to this.
I'm healthy and doing fine although I really want to get that redeployment order and come home (as everyone does) I don't dwell on it. We are accomplishing our mission here and I think I'll take a lot of pride in that for the rest of my life. Although the sacrifice is great, the rewards of service are so much greater.
Excerpts of letters from Army Pfc. Rachel K. Bosveld, 19, of Oshkosh, Wis., who was killed Oct. 26, 2003 in a mortar attack.
I'm doing great this week. Sure, I've dodged lots of bullets and such, gotten little to no sleep and eaten nasty food, but I am doing great.
I got to drive a tank! I got a tour, learned how to operate everything, load everything, and I got to DRIVE IT! I was tooth from ear to ear!
I'm getting a Purple Heart for the accident, along with eight other people in my platoon . . . Someone is always getting injured here. There have been no fatalities so far in my company, though, just lots of injuries.
. . .
Well, bye for now, just wanted to let you know I'm O.K. and I miss you.
I love you,
Excerpt of a letter from Army Pvt. Robert L. Frantz, 19, of San Antonio, who was killed June 17, 2003 when he was struck by a grenade. The letter was postmarked June 15.
I got the first package, and the letter you sent me. Sorry if I haven't been writing so much. I pull 12-hour guard shifts from 7 at night till 7 in the morning, and then I go on patrols some time in between those hours, and when I am not doing that I am usually sleeping.
I got to stay the night in Saddam's wife's palace the first night I was in Baghdad. That thing is huge.
We've had random gunfire within a 100-meter radius all night, every night, since I have been here. It kinda scares you the first couple nights, but you tend to get used to it.
Well, Mom, I gotta go. Tell everyone I love them and miss them very much.
Love always and forever,
Excerpt of a letter from Army Pfc. Jesse A. Givens, 34, of Springfield, Mo. Private Givens was killed May 1, 2003 when his tank fell into the Euphrates River after the bank on which he was parked gave way. This letter was written to be delivered to his family if he died. Melissa is his wife, Dakota his 6-year-old stepson and Bean the name he used for his son, Carson, who was born May 29.
I never thought that I would be writing a letter like this. I really don't know where to start. I've been getting bad feelings, though and, well, if you are reading this . . .
The happiest moments in my life all deal with my little family. I will always have with me the small moments we all shared. The moments when you quit taking life so serious and smiled. The sounds of a beautiful boy's laughter or the simple nudge of a baby unborn. You will never know how complete you have made me. You saved me from loneliness and taught me how to think beyond myself. You taught me how to live and to love. You opened my eyes to a world I never dreamed existed.
Dakota . . . you taught me how to care until it hurts, you taught me how to smile again. You taught me that life isn't so serious and sometimes you just have to play. You have a big, beautiful heart. Through life you need to keep it open and follow it. Never be afraid to be yourself. I will always be there in our park when you dream so we can play. I love you, and hope someday you will understand why I didn't come home. Please be proud of me.
Bean, I never got to see you but I know in my heart you are beautiful. I know you will be strong and big-hearted like your mom and brother. I will always have with me the feel of the soft nudges on your mom's belly, and the joy I felt when I found out you were on your way. I love you, Bean.
Melissa, I have never been as blessed as the day I met you. You are my angel, soulmate, wife, lover and best friend. I am sorry. I did not want to have to write this letter. There is so much more I need to say, so much more I need to share. A lifetime's worth. I married you for a million lifetimes. That's how long I will be with you. Please keep my babies safe. Please find it in your heart to forgive me for leaving you alone. . . . Teach our babies to live life to the fullest, tell yourself to do the same.
I will always be there with you, Melissa. I will always want you, need you and love you, in my heart, my mind and my soul. Do me a favor, after you tuck the children in. Give them hugs and kisses from me. Go outside and look at the stars and count them. Don't forget to smile.