|My neighbor is a hero. He wouldn’t say so, but he is. He's humble, and the kind of guy that would probably be a little embarrassed by this, so I’m leaving his name out. Honestly, I don't want to tick him off as I’m pretty sure he can take me. OK, I’m really sure, so we'll maintain his anonymity. Anyway, he is one of the “few and the proud,” who earned every stripe by serving his country. You see, he’s a United States Marine, a Gunnery Sergeant to be exact, who took part on the front lines during the war in Iraq. He, and thousands like him, have deployed year-after-year to the other side of the world to protect our country, and liberate others.
Over the last year, I’ve become friends with him and his lovely wife, although our kid’s after-school schedules usually interfere with our ability to get together on a regular basis. Despite sharing a passion for good barbeque, the two of us are about as opposite as two men can be. He’s a proud Democrat, and I’m a disgruntled Republican. He trains for Iron Man marathons and long-distance bicycle races, while I sit in front of a computer all day, typing and eating bacon double-cheeseburgers. He loves the Vikings, and I love the Steelers. And so on and so on…
The biggest difference is that I have spent the last few years writing about war, while he's been off fighting in one. It's difficult to complain to someone like that about having a "bad day at the office," as my "worst" day was probably a helluva lot better than his "best" day on the battlefield. I mean, what could I say? The only thing I've ever been shot with is a camera, and the only risk I have to take is going with French Vanilla or Irish creamer.
When the two of us first met, we were discussing my biographies and I was surprised to find out that he had little knowledge of (and even less of an interest in) my two subjects: Stonewall Jackson and J.E.B. Stuart. I also came to realize that unlike me, he doesn’t have shelves in his office that are overflowing with books and videos about war. He doesn’t spend hours in front of the tube watching combat documentaries on the Military Channel. He doesn’t waste his time. He’s “been there and done that” for real. I imagine the educational and entertainment value of war goes way down once you’ve experienced it first-hand.
Recently, he was attending a military school where the curriculum included the study of strategies and tactics during the Civil War. As part of their class work, the students watched Ron Maxwell films and toured the battlefields here in Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania County. Some drove 2 hours to visit Gettysburg, while others read books on both the commanders and their subordinates. Later, they split into groups for their final project. His group was tasked with "briefing" the Battle of Chancellorsville while presenting the key elements and participants from an analytical point of view.
I helped a little (very little that is) by providing copies of some books and a DVD, but ultimately the assignment required the insights and experiences of a trained soldier to gather the data required to pass the course. At his request, I reviewed both his report and slide presentation. I was extremely impressed with the quantity and quality of information. His conclusions were well documented and written as only a combat veteran could write them. In their final week, he (and his group) presented their project on Chancellorsville, received an outstanding grade, and moved on to their next duty. When it was over, he was gracious enough to present me with copies of the brief and I have read his group's meticulous timeline report over and over. Their minute-by-minute summaries of the events (from both sides) present a completely different approach to studying the Battle of Chancellorsville and I am still digesting it.
My point in all of this is that WE (the armchair historians of America), the ones that spend countless hours in the study of war, the reenactment of it, the preservation of it, will NEVER know the true feeling and emotion of stepping onto a REAL battlefield. We will never experience that test of courage, that sensation of fear, and the risk of putting our lives on the line for our country, and for our friends. They, the real soldiers, the veterans of all wars, know history like we never will, because they helped write it.
As buffs, authors and historians, we must never lose that perspective. We must never take the responsibility of recording their sacrifices lightly and we must always strive to give them the credit that they so deeply deserve. We all have an obligation to preserve their memories so that future generations will know of their courage and sacrifice. Remember this: "History is documented in ink - but written in blood."
My daughter’s school is hosting a tribute to our troops next month and in addition to a musical program filled with patriotic songs and readings, they are creating a “Hall of Heroes” around the gymnasium. The hall is to be comprised of posters (made by the children) that pay tribute to their relatives that have served in the military. My daughter’s subject is her Great-grandfather (my wife’s Grandfather) who is 79, but doesn’t look a day over 60. Her poster reads: “My hero is my Great-grandfather Donald Hasley. He is a WW2 Veteran who served in the 2nd Marines Division from Nov. 1943 to Mar. 1946. He was a Corporal and saw combat at Saipan and Okinawa during the Pacific Campaign. He was a sharpshooter with the M1-Rifle and a B.A.R. gun expert. He still loves the Marines and is proud to have served with them. I am proud of him too.”
I’m proud of them as well, both of them, ALL of them, and I am grateful for the freedoms that they have secured for me, so that I can safely spend my time studying and writing about them.