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.