Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Things That Make Me Go "Thank You"

I get it now.

Until yesterday, I was like many Americans, especially under 35, who only thought of Memorial Day as just another long weekend, the first weekend of summer to fire up the grill and tap a keg. Don't get me wrong. That is a wonderful thing to do on Memorial Day Weekend. But it should be so much more than that.

For my generation and younger, we have no idea of what war is really like. I barely remember images of the helicopters landing on the roof of the US Embassy as Saigon was overrun. Vietnam vets were crazy killers with drug problems, at least that's the way they were portrayed. (The treatment of Vietnam Veterans is a national shame that must be addressed.) World War II was this glamorous fight to save the world from fascism that Grandpa would allude to once in a while. I never knew anyone who knew anyone who had died in either of those wars. And the Korean war barely registered beyond M*A*S*H. War might have been hell, but it was pretty funny, too.

Desert Storm, in which my cousin served as a tank mechanic in Saudi Arabia, was over so fast, if you sneezed, you missed it. We were so busy congratulating ourselves on how bad-ass we are as a country, that it was easy to forget about the 293 servicemen who died in combat or non-combat related accidents, including 15 servicewomen. It was the 21st century equivalent of the Spanish-American war, or that "splendid little war" as it was referred to by the US Ambassador to England. War may be hell, but we're so damn AWESOME at it.

And then there are Iraq and Afghanistan. At first, the MISSION was ACCOMPLISHED so quickly that it seemed as if no one had paid the ultimate price at all. There were occasional deaths afterwards. Hiccups in our successful War on Terror. Casualties were just numbers reported on CNN. Thanks to the President and his cronies, we weren't exposed to the images of our fallen warriors coming home in their flag-draped coffins because it might be "too upsetting". And we never, ever heard about the staggering number of wounded soldiers who survived life-shattering wounds. Is war really hell if you don't see it on the news?

The vast majority of Americans have sacrificed NOTHING. We go about our everyday routines. We get together with friends, we go to movies. I even came in third in two Fantasy Football leagues last year. Yay, me. The Yankees won the World Series. I was blessed with the birth of my second son. Life goes on. We have to do this. If we don't, we let the terrorists win. Or so we tell ourselves.

But it doesn't go on for everyone.

Yesterday I made the most innocuous of decisions. I was on Facebook when I saw one of my "Friends" had dedicated her page for the day to a friend of her father's who had been killed in action in Vietnam. That was a really good thing to do. I followed the link and figured out that I could do it, too. I pressed a few buttons and I was paired with SFC Kenneth W. Westbrook. I could have stopped there. I had done my duty. But I couldn't. Through the magic of Google, this is what I discovered.

SFC Kenneth Westbrook (41), a native of New Mexico and a member of the Navajo Nation, was not the first Westbrook to sacrifice his life for his country. His older brother, Sgt. Marshall (Alan) Westbrook (43) was the first member of the New Mexico National Guard killed in Iraq on October 1, 2005. He left a wife and five children. Almost four years to the day later, on October 7 Kenneth died of wounds he sustained on September 8 in Afghanistan. He was preparing to retire from the military in November. He left a wife and three sons. Their father, Marshall Westbrook, is a Vietnam Veteran who served 21 years in the Army.

Through Facebook, I have met Kenneth's wife of 22 years, Charlene Westbrook. She spent her first Memorial Day as a war widow in Washington, D.C. thanking the nurses at Walter Reed Hospital, where Kenneth died, for taking such good care of her husband before he passed away.

From the little bits and pieces I have learned, I wish I had had the honor to meet Kenneth and Alan. They sound like the kind of man every man should aspire to be. Charlene mentioned her husband's sense of humor. Alan's CO referred to him as a "gentle giant". They were family men and they loved God and country. I think I would have loved to sit down with them and share a few beverages of their choice.

We have placed the entire burden of sacrifice on the men and women in the armed forces and, maybe more importantly, on their families. It is the least we can do to honor them. Today, I pledge that Kenneth Westbrook and Marshall (Alan) Westbrook will not be forgotten, by me or my family. I now consider Kenneth and Alan to be two of my personal heros. I will teach my sons about their sacrifice and hold them up as models for the kind of men I want them to become.

Thank you Charlene, Kenneth, Alan and Marshall. I get it now.