Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Ultimate Sacrifice

On this weekend when we remember all service members who gave their lives for this country, it is important to look past the headstones and other memorials. Those fallen heroes were men and women; sons and daughters; husbands, brothers, sisters, wives, cousins and friends. They laid down their lives so that we might enjoy the blessings of freedom and liberty.

But who are these extraordinary individuals? Sadly, most of us who have worn the uniform know someone who made the ultimate sacrifice. But for millions of Americans, the concepts of "war" and "service" are almost foreign. The nation's military has been at war for the past decade, but for most of us, life goes on as usual. For the vast majority of the nation's families, there is no worry about a son or daughter serving in harm's way, or a uniformed officer appearing on their doorstep, delivering the worst news any parent or sibling can receive.

So, on this Memorial Day, it's important for us to move beyond the holiday's symbolism, and remember the individual sacrifice of those who gave their lives. If you don't know a family that has been touched by the nation's wars, read this piece by Childs Walker of the Baltimore Sun. It tells the story of Travis Manion and Brendan Looney, friends and roommates at the U.S. Naval Academy.

Today, they are joined in death at Arlington National Cemetery. Manion, a Marine Corps officer, died in Iraq in 2007; Looney, a SEAL officer, was killed in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan last year. Both were remarkable young men, dedicated to leading their troops and serving their nation. An excerpt:

Though undeniably tragic, the culmination of Travis and Brendan's bond is more than that for the people who loved them. It's a story of bravery, of goodness, of two men who died doing what they were put on the earth to do.

"They're probably the two best guys I've ever known and the two best guys I ever will know," says their friend and academy classmate Ben Mathews. "I think it means something that they're together. It's terrible that they had to give their lives, but they're shining examples of what Americans can strive to be."

Brendan was days from beginning SEAL training in San Diego when the news of Travis' death tore his world asunder. His sister, Erin, had always viewed him as indestructible and was taken aback to hear him hurt so badly. "That was the toughest part," she says. "It was the first time I ever saw Brendan in a different light. Not that he wasn't still tough, but maybe he was a little more vulnerable."

The Navy would not allow Brendan to leave for the funeral. In his fury, he briefly considered quitting. Instead, he dedicated his training to Travis and won the coveted "Honor Man" spot as the top graduate of his class.

On missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, Brendan wore two personal items — his wedding ring and a metal wrist band Travis' parents gave him to commemorate his friend. At his wedding reception in 2008, he handed Travis' mom, Janet, the gold trident pin he received for completing SEAL training.

"I only got this because of Travis," he said.

Read the whole thing, and take a moment to remember Brendan, Travis and all the extraordinary Americans who paid the price for our freedom. We owe them so much.

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