The United States has been at war in Afghanistan since the fall of my second grade year, and in Iraq for half of the years I have been in school. In all that time, and in all of the years that we watched Channel One News in the mornings, we never saw a casket, never heard about the war dead or the loss of limbs, and only heard about veterans one day a year.
That changed last Tuesday.
Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama have all been President of the United States during my schooling, and all three have addressed the nation’s students in the first weeks of school. Clips of these addresses were shown on Channel One, or the existence of the speeches was mentioned in news stories. There was never any controversy.
That changed this September.
This August, we were warned that the President was scheduled to speak to students across the nation, and the news media was full of dire predictions of this unprecedented address. We were originally asked to have our parents sign a form saying that we could listen to the fifteen minute national pep rally for paying attention and focusing on our studies, with the option of spending that time in another room. Then the speech was canceled except in U.S. government classes. Our infantile minds were apparently not prepared to absorb such concepts as hard work and setting goals.
And yet, we were apparently sufficiently mature to watch last week’s memorial service from Fort Hood. Without warning and without parental permission, this solemn service and the words of the President and several reverends were shown school-wide, in class.
Tuesday’s memorial honored the fallen soldiers who died here in Texas, those killed by one of their own, a member of the Fort Hood family. Perhaps seeing the memorial was appropriate, but not without any prior indication that it would be shown.
In many ways I am different from my classmates, but I was far more prepared for hearing the President’s scholastic encouragement than for seeing the empty boots of fallen soldiers and hearing the roll-call and the sound of taps. My brother wears the same uniform as the grieving soldiers, and he has served at Fort Hood. I lived with him at Fort Hood during one of his trainings for his career as an army truck mechanic. The buildings in the background of the live shots were familiar to me, and I imagined that afternoon what it would be like to attend a memorial for my own brother. I was distraught Tuesday and am still emotional as I think back. I hope he remains alive well into his 90s, and I am more than resigned to grieve for him when I reach ninety myself.
Most of Fort Hood’s dead are honored with ceremonies similar to the service last week. The rituals are the same though the crowds are much smaller. The news doesn’t tell us about the 70 Fort Hood soldiers who committed suicide in the first half of 2009. We have not seen military funerals for any of the 5000 military service members killed in combat in Iraq or Afghanistan since I learned to write my name in cursive. Our morning announcements don’t indicate the number of those forever wounded in body or soul in that time. And we have certainly seen no mention of Afghan or Iraqi civilians killed by our military since my adult teeth started coming in.
Funerals and memorial services can be very traumatic, and the sight of empty combat boots is intended to sadden us. Many of my classmates have never been to a funeral, and fewer still have family members serving in the armed forces. Almost none have a family member deployed in a war zone. Our first military funeral should not have come unannounced and unanticipated.