I was told a story several years ago that has remained top of mind for me since, especially when the going gets rough. There was a Vietnam veteran who entered a bar and plopped himself down on a stool.
He ordered Gentleman Jack and sipped his whiskey, staring into the mirror behind the bar. A guy sat on the stool next to him, ordered a beer, and started to wail about how lousy a day he had. His boss chewed him out for being late on a project. He found out through a coworker he wasn’t being considered for a promotion. His wife called and said the dishwasher wasn’t working, and she paid a plumber $500 to fix it. To top it off, the high school principal called and said his teenage son was in a fight and under consideration for suspension.
After his rant and half his beer drunk, he spun to the veteran and asked how his day was. The veteran turned, looked him in the eyes, took a sip of his Jack, and said, “At least you’re not sitting in some ****ty foxhole with your battle buddy getting your asses shot at!”
I’m a student of American history. Much of my studies centered on the great wars our nation engaged in, starting with the Revolutionary War to present-day fighting in the tunneled mountains of Afghanistan. I often imagine what it would have been like to fight during the Revolution. Your movement was by foot, often traveling miles per day in worn boots, if any, and tattered clothing. Your battlefield engagements were up close with the enemy. We fought shoulder to shoulder, inline formations with bayonets fixed on muskets. More soldiers died from disease than they did from bayonets, cannon, or musket ball fire. Our dead’s ultimate sacrifice birthed our great nation, and many of them were oh, so young.
I’ve walked several Civil War battlefields and imagined what it would have been like to fight at Gettysburg and Antietam. Deadlier means of artillery with canister shot littered battlefields with wounded and dead soldiers. The battle at Antietam ended as the single bloodiest day of American history, with close to 23,000 maimed, killed, or missing in action. Bodies upon bodies were stacked like cordwood in ravines, subject to the elements until mass burial teams arrived. The Civil War was the last great war we fought where the predominant strategy was to attrit the opposing force and remains the deadliest of any wars we’ve prosecuted. There were an unimaginable estimated 620,000 to 750,000 deaths resulting from the four-year war. Our dead’s ultimate sacrifice preserved our great nation, and many of them were oh, so young.
I’ve visited some of the trenches our soldiers fought from during World War I. I imagined what it would be like digging then fighting out of those trenches and fearing the new, horrific chemical weapon, mustard gas. The Germans first introduced it against the British and Canadian armies in Belgium. It’s not a gas, but a vapor and powder, and causes blisters on the skin and, if inhaled, the lungs. The pain was excruciating, and death likely. We lost more than 100,000 countrymen in the four years fighting the war to end all wars. Our dead’s ultimate sacrifice preserved our great nation from German aggression and domination of Europe, and many of them, were oh, so young.
My first Army assignment was in Germany, and I vacationed once in Sicily. I traveled extensively throughout Europe and often imagined what it would be like fighting the great tank battles in Northern Africa, Sicily, France and Germany. New means of death and destruction entered this war. Loss of life by artillery and aerial bombardment, impacting the combatants and noncombatants, was extensive and horrific. We lost close to 300,000 countrymen in the four years of fighting the second great war to end all wars. Our dead’s ultimate sacrifice preserved our great nation from the German and Japanese threat to our shores, and many of them were oh, so young.
Then there are the Korean and Vietnam conflicts where we intended to stop communist aggression in the Pacific Rim and Southeast Asia and lost close to 34,000 and 59,000 of our countrymen in each of these proxy wars. Jungle fighting was fierce, and the torture of our captured ones was routine. Those who returned to our country were scorned by many, called baby killers by prominent Hollywood elite, and often ignored for their courageous service. Our dead’s ultimate sacrifice halted the communist aggression, and many of them were oh, so young.
Today we fight a different war. One that is asymmetrical and almost forgotten by so many of our countrymen. We’ve been fighting in the Middle East for nearly two decades. Our men and women combat fanaticism hard for us to understand. One where our enemy seeks to cause death and destruction where and when they can fight the innocent in our homeland. We’ve lost close to 8,000 of our countrymen, in addition to those lost on 9/11. Our dead’s ultimate sacrifice has stopped these zealots from committing another 9/11-type attack, and many of them are oh, so young.
My opening story about the Vietnam veteran in the bar sipping his Gentlemen Jack brings perspective to many of us who may have forgotten about those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice to protect our great nation and the ideology and values the United States represents globally. On this Memorial Day, I’ll be praying for the souls lost and their gold star loved ones impacted by the death of their American heroes, and thanking God I’m not sitting in some foxhole with my battle buddy getting our asses shot at!
Let us memorialize those who spilled their blood, making the ultimate sacrifice so we could live with all our liberties in this great nation of ours.
Paul A. Raggio is co-owner, with his sister Lisa, of One True North INC Leadership and Business Coaching Solutions.