To The Unfinished Work

By Kevin Shannahan

Several years ago I participated in the Bataan Memorial Death March held at White Sands Missile Range. It is a unique event, a full marathon across the New Mexico desert held to honor the soldiers who endured the Bataan Death March in WWII, many of whom were from New Mexico National Guard units. While the race takes place on an Army post and has a distinctly military flavor, there are people from every walk of life there.

I was thinking of the last time I participated in the march as I sat down to write this piece. The Bataan Memorial Death March is a truly eclectic event. There are people running it as one would a conventional marathon. There are soldiers running the marathon in uniform, boots and a 35 lb rucksack. Then there are people like me who hike the whole route without running.

The race is impossible to participate in without contemplating the relationship between America and her military, the men and women who serve, have served, and their families. I spent 11 hours passing, and being passed by, a variety of people. I was passed by a soldier whose prosthetic leg made a clinking sound as he marched at a furious pace. An hour later, I saw him by the side of the road sitting down, his leg beside him, in obvious pain as he massaged the stump. As I went over to see if he needed help, another soldier helped him to his feet . He put the leg back on, shouldered his rucksack and took off again. We were to pass each other several times that day in the same manner. I spent an hour or so with a group of older women who were talking about what a good time they were having that day. One could see women like them taking an early morning walk in any city in America except for one difference. They all wore t-shirts with a photo of a young man, a date and a place. Between them, they had lost 5 sons to our nation’s wars. Two of them had other children in the military. At that moment President Lincoln’s 1864 letter to Mrs. Bixby became more than a piece of history to me: “…laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom…” Many of the marchers’ rucksacks had photographs of friends and relatives pinned to them.

Social media will be briefly full of flags and military cemeteries. We will be piously reminded of the reason for the three day weekend. In a very real way, it is a good thing that the vast majority of the population has no real connection to the military. I would not wish us a return to the days of the Civil War or WWII in which the casualty lists were in the thousands and almost every family had a connection to the war.

President Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address laid out what we owe to the men and women who died in our nation’s battles “… It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

We owe them more than gratitude, much more than a shallow moment or two before we get on with the cookout, etc. We owe them to be better men and women. Make your life count. Be worthy. Be the kind of American worth fighting for.

10 thoughts on “To The Unfinished Work

  1. Well written, Kevin. And to all, let’s not forget that there were many women who have given their lives to serve and die for the freedoms of this great nation. Women have served all the way back to the Revolutionary War. Some have worn the uniform, disguised as men, to serve the country they loved. Others, served as spies, bringing vital intelligence back to our side. Others served in a capacity where they served in the place of men who were off fighting the war; as test pilots for new models of aircraft built for the war effort; as pilots shuttling supplies, in the plants building aircraft, tanks, and other military equipment for the war effort. As nurses, and clerks, in Vietnam. And now, as fighter pilots, helo pilots, doctors, nurses, soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines. Women have even been Prisoners of War! Let’s not forget that women today are veterans too!

    • Absolutely!

      And while we are focused on Americans, and rightly so, I do want to mention a documentary I saw about British women during WWII. Specifically, pilots who ferried newly built Spitfires from the factories to southern England to the forward bases. These women pilots would fly the new planes unarmed! They did not have ammo for the guns and would often fly into German attacks near the bases. Of course the Germans would attack their planes, not knowing they were unarmed, and the only defense these gallant women pilots had was their flying skills and nerve. They would hide in the clouds, as best they could, until the German fighters retired back across the channel. Then, these women pilots would ride a train back to the factories and do it all over again. Remarkable.

      God bless all who have served our nation…and who have served the cause of freedom.

  2. Perhaps we can become “better Americans” by putting aside our differences and solving the real problems of the country—infrastructure, medical care, education (unequal and inferior in rural America), growing economic inequality, and climate change—and by exercising reason to reject conspiracy theories about those we dislike. We should honor those who have served and suffered in battle, but good citizenship is not confined to the battlefield. We can honor the dead by perfecting the country they left us.

  3. This is an excellent tribute Kevin and serves as a reminder that we must never forget those who paid the ultimate sacrifice. Patriotism is not a given, but must be earned by those who cherish freedom. This, more than anything else, is what sets America apart from any other country.

  4. I knew several wonderful men in our fair town that served in WWII and also endured the tortures of prison camps. One of the brave men was on a march such as this and it might have been this one. He told of the horrors of that time and what it was like to see your friends and fellow Americans fall to the side and and left to die. It was a time I cannot even fathom, and my heart breaks for the brave young men who went to foreign countries for fight for freedom and stop the ones attacking America. I am so thankful the men and others had the strength to live through these atrocities and come home to their loved ones. I felt honored to know them, though one has gone on to his heavenly reward now. I honor all the men who have died defending freedom. We look at their faces and they look so very young, and we hurt for futures ended on the battlefield. We hurt for the families who have sons, brothers, husbands and fathers whose bodies are on some foreign shore, with no grave site to visit and place flowers in remembrance of them. To those families, I say that your sacrifice is not forgotten, and your pain is shared by those of us who understand what Memorial Day is all about. It’s ok to have fun on this day, but first we should teach our children why there is a Memorial Day, and what it means. Too soon, many of us forget. Let’s not let that happen on this day because these brave men died for our freedom to have a wonderful holiday to have a great time. God bless all the men who lost their lives, and God bless the men who made it home.

  5. Good job Kevin, well written. And, I am reminded of a line from a very good movie, Saving Private Ryan, when Capt. Miller urges Ryan “to earn this.” That is the mandate ALL of have, we too must earn what our gallant military service men and women have given us…a free country. Do not take it for granted. Live everyday to the fullest and remember to give something back.

    A big THANK YOU to all who have served our nation. And God bless those who “gave that last full measure.”

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