I'm a people person; it's difficult for me to grasp the sacrifices of a nation based on numbers. So many conflicts, so many losses. It's the personal stories that bring war into perspective for me, so I thought I'd share one today.
My great-grandmother, Goldie, had six children: five sons and one daughter - my grandmother, Mary. She and her family lived in a little town on the banks of the Ohio River in the northern edge of West Virginia. It was a quiet, peaceful existence in a town where not much happened in the early 1900s. .
On February 18, 1935, her youngest child - Donny - died of pneumonia and measles at the age of 18 months. My grandmother, Mary, told me many times that the family seriously thought her mother, Goldie, would never recover from the death of Donny. Life has a way of pulling you along, urging you on, even in grief.
In the years that followed, the series of events and conflicts that would lead to World War II would escalate, getting ever closer to the kitchen table. Eventually, it hit too close to home as one by one, each one of her sons were called to war. First Tom, then Roy and last - Burhl. Still reeling from the loss of Donny, I can only imagine the toll it took on her. She had endured each farewell stoically, or at least as best she could manage, but when the draft board called for her youngest living son, Bob, it was more than she could bear.
At four foot eleven, she could not have been much of a fright to anyone, but she was determined to approach the draft board officials herself and keep Bob home. My grandfather drove her to the county draft board so she could tell the official in charge all the reasons that Bob should not go. It was only logical, in her mind. Bob had always been sickly, she told them - he had missed almost a year of school for respiratory problems (it was true!). Secretly, she feared he would succumb to pneumonia, like Donny. Surely, the draft board could see that he wasn't a good candidate for a soldier. If not for that reason, then couldn't the draft board consider the sacrifice her family had already made? Three of her sons were on active duty in Europe, "in the thick of it", she'd recall in later life.
Pleading, she addressed the official; I'm told she got on her knees and begged, "Please don't take Bob; you have all my other boys." In her mother's heart, I'm sure she was consumed by the horrible possibility of losing them all. Years later, she would purse her lips and squint her eyes as she told the tale and repeated the official's blunt response: "And we'll take him, too." On the way home, between sobs and weeping, the little woman who never cursed proclaimed that she was sure that man would rot in hell.
And so, all four of her living sons went half way around the world and fought in a war they probably didn't fully understand, and their mother could never accept. It is with great pride that I say that all of my great uncles had a profound sense of duty and devotion to this country and did not hesitate to serve. Reports of casualties would fill the local paper, and familiar names appeared with regularity and each time, I suspect it was like a new wound for Goldie's heart. She prayed that God would take care of them and bring them home.
The story of her fear and foreboding during the war years has stuck with me all my life. William Tecumseh Sherman well articulated the impact of combat, bloodshed and hostility when he proclaimed, "War is hell."
Of course, my great grandmother wasn't the only one consumed with the fear of loss of a family member. Countless numbers of parents, brothers, sisters, friends and spouses would feel that pain of separation - and ultimately, a large number of those people would find that their fears would be realized. With each war, the process is repeated over and over again.
Memorial Day is said to be the day we honor the lives of those who died in service; let's give them 364 more days of remembrance, every year. Remembering and honoring their sacrifice is a small price to pay. Remember each headstone represents all of their families who sacrifice, too. Honor the military men while they are with us; it is still a life of sacrifice. Maybe if we all remember the high price of war, we'll eventually figure out a way to avoid it at all cost.
All four of my great uncles miraculously came home, raised families and died with grey hair in that same little town on the Ohio River. Miracles happen.