When I was a kid, writes Kat Smutz, I remember my brother coming home looking as if he had been crying. I asked my mother what was wrong. She said he must have been visiting Claude.
Claude Giles was my brother’s friend who went off to Viet Nam and never came home. It happened again when another friend, Chan Collier, didn’t make it back. So, when the American Veteran’s Traveling Tribute “Cost of Freedom” Exhibit came to Calais, Maine, this week, I didn’t see it as a chance to visit – I saw it as an opportunity to pay my respects. Not only to Claude and Chan, but to all their fellow soldiers, lost in Viet Nam. Their names are etched on a scaled down model of the Viet Nam Memorial in Washington, DC. There are also tributes to police and firefighters and other victims of the War on Terror, Desert Storm, Korea, World War II, soldiers of both the North and South during the American Civil War, the War of 1812, and the American Revolution.
In other words, just about every battle waged where Americans lost their lives to defend the United States.
My brother, Thad, didn’t go off to fight in Viet Nam like the other young men of his generation. He had been in an accident that made him ineligible for service. I think our family should be grateful for that. And for all of our friends and family members who have made it home. My two nephews have both served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and have come home unscathed. My husband’s father was in Korea, and my father was in Europe during World War II. Both, thankfully, came home. So did my uncles.
They weren’t the first in our family to serve. The list of men in my family tree who went off to war goes back to before my family came to America. The earliest I know of is my seventh great grandfather who died at sea in the service of the British navy. It happened not far from Maine – off the coast of Halifax, in 1713. I don’t imagine he was the first, and I know that he wasn’t the last. According to my great great great grandmother, 107 of her ‘descendents’ marched off to war to fight for the Confederacy. I’m still checking to verify or discount that number. I’m also trying to find out how many came home. I know that not all of them did. My great grandfather did. He served with Thomas’ Legion during the Civil War and came home, so the story goes, so ragged that only the dog recognized him. So did his brother-in-law, who died later of his war wounds. Another brother in law was lost trying to keep Sherman out of Atlanta.
Today, it isn’t just fathers, husbands, brothers and sons who go off to war. Wives, sisters, daughters and mothers take up arms as well. Some return to us, some don’t. Those who do return may or may not come home with physical injuries. None return entirely whole, after experiencing things too horrible for the rest of us to imagine. Be they friends, family, or complete strangers, we should be grateful to all who go, and for all who return.
Dictators and world leaders have their own reasons for sending our men and women into the face of war. But the individual men and women of free countries who actually put on a uniform, pick up a rifle, and go off to war, go for one reason. They go for us. They go so that we can stay. They go so that we can stay safe and stay free. They go for us.
To learn more about the American Veteran Traveling Tribute, visit http://www.avtt.org/.