Remembering the Sacrifices of Our Military

GUEST BLOGGER: Remembering the Sacrifices of Our Military, by the late Duane Sheppard, award-winning OpEd writer. (This article first appeared in The St. Cloud Times, St. Cloud, MN.)

Last Memorial Day weekend, as I saw media images of grieving parents at grave sites holding military photos of sons and daughters lost, I was reminded anew of the high cost of war.

I can only try to imagine what it must have been like for my Grandma Sheppard to receive a telegram from the War Department back in June of 1944. As she opened with trembling fingers the small yellow paper bearing a tersely worded message, her first reaction must have been to wonder which of her three military sons she’d lost.

Sergeant Morris W. Sheppard, a 28-year-old paratrooper from Madison Lake, Minnesota, Grandma was informed, was “missing in action,” a euphemism that generally meant a soldier had been killed in battle but they hadn’t yet found his body.

Several months later, my grandmother received the exhilarating news that he was alive, but unfortunately, he was being held as a prisoner of the Nazis.

How she must have rejoiced that at least he was still alive! Yet the anxiety over what sort of treatment he might be enduring in a German prison camp had to have tempered the celebration. Five months later she received yet another telegram from the Provost Marshal in Washington, D.C., telling her that her son had escaped and was now in Moscow.

For years after my uncle returned, he refused to speak of his seven combat jumps or his multiple escapes from Prisoner of War camps. He brushed off questions about his service with the words, “Those things are best forgotten.”

Wednesday’s St. Cloud Times bore the headline: “Military Stress Cases Rise.” Citing the epidemic of an estimated 40,000 cases of war-related Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder since 2003, the report called to mind poet John Milton’s line, “They also serve who only stand and wait.” The stress borne by loved ones at home should never be underestimated.

I was 10 years old when my father was drafted into the Army during World War II to serve under Dwight Eisenhower at the Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Forces, in France.  Among my vivid wartime memories are red-bordered flags that hung in the windows of families of men and women in the service—a blue star for each living service member, a gold star for those who had died.

During the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln sent the following letter to Lydia Bixby, a mother grieving incalculable losses:

“I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts, that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle. I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering to you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save. I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours, to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of Freedom.”

While the wartime loss of sons, daughters, siblings, spouses, and parents is no less tragic in our time, we who are the modern-day beneficiaries of the freedom from terrorism on our own soil owe a huge debt of gratitude to those men and women who serve in the military or who have made the ultimate sacrifice. Let’s not make expressions of thanks and support for military personnel and their families just a once-a-year event.

Last weekend I stood at the grave of my father and reread the bronze military foot plaque. Though he was not killed in service, he came home from the war gravely ill with undulant fever, a disease he had contracted in France. Too sick and demoralized to go through the red tape necessary to get medical care through military channels, my father spent months in the hospital at his own expense after his return to civilian life. He carried the effects of this disease for the rest of his life—a different sort of sacrifice upon the altar of Freedom.

Tomorrow is the 40th anniversary of his death.

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