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Monday, July 18, 2005

The meaning of sacrifice

Today’s PD features a letter to the editor by a woman in North Royalton who expresses concern about today’s mothers trying to “protect” their children from military recruiters.

She compares today’s moms in particular (parents in general) with the moms of World War II, no doubt a dismal comparison. She writes:

”The children these moms of today are trying to protect are products of privilege who have never been asked to give up a thing to preserve and protect our country.

“Sacrifice is not in their vocabulary. But I am willing to bet it is these same moms (and dads) who make their presence known at sporting events such as the recent one where a concession worker was killed and an umpire badly beaten.

“I truly fear for the future of this country with parents and children like these in charge.”
— Dorothy M. Olson, North Royalton

Well, Mrs. Olson, your letter gave me pause and even made me ashamed of my generation. We arespoiled and privileged. Though our parents didn’t fight in World War II, our grandparents did. We were too young to remember Vietnam and the Gulf War was, for many, a television experience. So maybe as a generation we’re slow to learn the meaning of the word “sacrifice” because we’ve never been asked to. Our parents and grandparents fought bravely so that we could have the privileges we do.

Unfortunately, some of us have forgotten the value of that sacrifice. It’s become a distant memory and our generation never felt the discomfort and pain it brought. We only felt the freedoms and prosperity that ensued.

But we live in a different time from the turn of the millennium. And it would behoove us to listen to the wisdom of our elders.

I come from a long line of military-serving family. My father recently learned that his natural father’s family traces its roots back to the American Revolution. His biological dad was a Navy SEABEE in World War II.

My paternal grandfather was an Army infantryman in Guam in World War II. Somewhere in his attic are Bronze Star and Purple Heart medals, though he’s never told us how and why he came to receive those honors. We suspect he never will because he saw things in that war that people just don’t discuss.

My maternal grandfather was in the Coast Guard serving in the Pacific Theater. My dad spent time on Navy subs, my uncle served in the Navy in the Philippines during Vietnam. On the Fourth of July in 1972, we had a great party and a family photo that I still have. My uncle was there only briefly, I recall. My Gram told me recently that he was shipping out to Vietnam that day and she had him for only a few hours. And in those few hours she had to share him with dozens of relatives, despite wanting to hold onto him for herself.

I didn’t see my older brother, Chris for four years. He served in the Air Force in Germany and even missed my wedding 14 years ago. After all, this was in the months after the Gulf War.

But I keep coming back to this word “sacrifice.” What exactly does it mean today?

I’ve had many kitchen table conversations with my Gram about World War II. I was a history and political science minor in college and focused much of my education on contemporary history. I’m interested in learning lessons from the past and how we can apply those to the future. I get antsy when I think we’re not seeing history repeat itself and so that shapes my world view.

I’m also the family archivist of sorts and would regularly page through albums, asking Gram how she managed on her own in New York City with a baby (my mom). My mom was born on July 4, 1942 in Staten Island. My Grandpa saw my mom when she was born, but then was gone for 2-1/2 years. My mom didn’t know who he was when he came home from the war. I can’t imagine how hard that was for both my grandparents.

My Gram’s response always is: “We just did what we had to. Everyone had to make sacrifices and it didn’t do you any good to complain.”

So how do we teach such noble notions, sacrifice without complaint, to our children in this culture of instant gratification and continuous whining?

It comes down to widening your view — realizing that it isn’t all about you or me or us. It means making sure your children read and consume news. Encourage them to ask questions about what’s happening in the world. Explore together ways to find answers and to learn about things you don’t currently understand. A front-page photo of a grieving mother from Kosovo years ago opened the door for a discussion with Ryan about hatred and the confusion and mayhem and destruction that can result from one group not understanding or accepting another group.

The night of September 11, 2001, as I tucked my children in to bed, Patrick asked me: “Do I have to forgive the terrorists?” That opened a discussion on the real nature of forgiveness and why it is so bloody difficult.

I have three sons and there’s a good chance that in five years, when Ryan turns 18, the War in Iraq will still be going on. My Patrick is almost 11 and keenly interested in all things military. It would not surprise me in the least if he finds himself called to serve.

It will break my heart because in my selfishness I will want him to engage in something “safe.” But I will keep that to myself because it will also make me very proud to think that he is so dedicated to his country that he will volunteer to defend it.

I ran into an old friend over the weekend and she was wearing one of those Livestrong-like bands that was Army green and said in celebration of Uncle Dan, U.S.M.C. When I asked her about it, she said her 10-year-old son ordered them online for her brother-in-law who works for CENTCOM.

This is a guy who was born into a wealthy family that owns a Fortune 500 company. He skipped the family business and instead earned a law degree and master’s degree in public policy from Harvard. He has political aspirations but felt it important to have military service before considering politics. So after college he entered officer candidate school. Today he is serving as a lieutenant in the Marines for CENTCOM. He regularly shuttles back and forth from Afghanistan to Iraq. He could have gotten a pass on the War on Terror since at the time his unit was called up he was working in the White House. But he said if his unit was going to the Middle East, he preferred to be with them.

As I told my friend, that kind of person is unfortunately rare.

So, Mrs. Olson, I hope you find hope in such stories and I hope your generation will be willing to speak to ours of the meaning of sacrifice. Because we’re not all so selfish, we’ve just never really been asked to sacrifice before.

1 comment:

Greta Garbo said...

I've reflected, in different ways, how priviledged our generation is, and how much we consider "necessary" for quality of life. I look at my peer group and wonder if we're a generation that believes Starbucks and highlights are a necessity.