On my belt clip I keep an assortment of keys for the parsonage, my churches, our three cars, the house in Red Cloud and some odds and ends. Among them is my Dad’s dog tag issued to him in July 1944. Dad served as a Lieutenant JG at the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa and his job was to pilot a landing craft which took the Marines and Army troops to beaches during both engagements.
The first three days at Iwo Jima were spent unloading healthy vital young Marines to the battle. After the third day his ship became a hospital and the same strong vibrant young men he had taken to the beaches were now returning in shattered and broken bodies. Once loaded, his ship, the USS Lowdes would sail to the medical hospital on the island of Saipan which was captured in another terrible battle the previous summer. Upon discharging its cargo the Lowdes returned to Iwo for more casualties. There were more than 20,000 American boys killed or wounded so Dad’s ship and other transports were kept busy during the 5 week battle.
Dad was a story teller and entertained everyone with humorous yarns of his time in the Navy and World War II. They were adventure stories and we kids grew up anxious to join the military, find our own war and have a great adventure. Eventually I came to understand that war is a terrible atrocity and there is nothing grand or adventurous about it.
When Dad was in his late seventies he began to have nightmares about his experiences in World War II. Mom confided that he had always had difficulty with what had happened at Iwo Jima and Okinawa but that it was getting worse. The funny stories and adventures were fading and my Dad was starting to remember the broken and shattered bodies.
Dad of course is a hero in my eyes as are all those who serve in the battlefields of war. But as my Father struggled with the memories of those battles I began to realize that they are not heroes because of what they did in war. Their heroism came by how they lived their lives in the years of peace that followed. Good young men were trained to hate an enemy and kill him with ruthless efficiency. They witness the worse of human behavior and saw horrors almost incomprehensible. And then when peace came they were sent home to live normal lives as if nothing had happened. Somehow the dead and broken bodies of fellow soldiers, the chaos and destruction of artillery, guns, grenades and bombs, the hate pounded into them was to simply be forgotten and put aside like their old uniforms.
The wounds of war never heal. They are as fresh 50 years later as the day they were first inflicted. These heroes simple learn to live with them as I live with my hearing aids or arthritic knees. My Dad came home to get married, go to school get a job and raise a family. He taught school then sold insurance. He retired a banker and in those longs years he volunteer in the community, served on church boards, civic groups and told wonderful stories. Like many whom return from war he lived a normal and productive life, being a caring father, a loving husband and good friend. All the while carrying the grim memory of those young shattered Marines.
So many people have returned from the battlefields of Europe or the Pacific, of Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. And they quietly, stoically live their lives hiding the experiences of those conflicts as though there were immune to the chaos of war and the hate of human conflict. What they wanted were decent job, a loving family, and a caring community. They wanted to hunt, fish, golf, or anything that’s peaceful and would bury the memories of war that still holds a grip on them.
They are parents and grandparents, farmers and business people, teachers and factory workers. They go to church, attend town meetings, and help out with community activities. They watch their children and grandchildren in school plays and church Christmas programs. They attend football, basketball, wrestling and volleyball games. They are men and women who understand that the grand adventure of war and heroic deeds in battle have no meaning if they cannot watch a child being baptized or enjoy a Thanksgiving meal with their family. In the incongruity of hate and love, war and peace, violence and gentleness they struggle to calm the memories of war by living lives of peace. And that’s why they are heroes.