The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.
-- G.K. Chesterton
This Memorial Day we consider the themes of sacrifice and love and honor and duty, and realize that so many ordinary men and women have given us a gift we can never repay.
I thought of the loss of families and loved ones, and then I thought of this: What if you were the last man killed in one of our numerous wars?
What if you could have only avoided that one last bullet? That one last charge or defense? It focuses the tragedy of all wars because posterity sometimes leaves us with the last man's name.
In the American Civil War it was Cpl. John W. Skinner of the 1st Florida U.S. Cavalry. Skinner briefly served in the Confederate Army before joining federal forces in Florida. In May 1865, his cavalry unit was escorting a mail delivery from Montgomery to Eufaula, Ala., when they were ambushed at a place called Hobdy's Bridge. Skinner was killed.
The U.S. Commissioner of Pensions determined Skinner had fallen in action.
"To hold otherwise," he said, "would not only be unjust and inequitable, but contrary to the dictates of sound reason and common sense ..."
Common sense does seem to involve the last man to die in the First World War.
According to Toronto's The Globe and Mail , he was an Army private named Henry Gunther. On that famous 11th Day of the 11th Month in 1918, the 11th hour approached when the armistice was expected to end hostilities. Gunther stood up in his trench, fixed his bayonet and charged across No Man's Land.
"The Germans stared in disbelief," said another newspaper account. "They had been told that morning that the fighting was about to stop; in a few minutes they would stop firing and go home. So why was this American charging at them with his bayonet drawn? They shouted at him to stop and frantically tried to wave him back." But Gunther charged on, so they shot him.
It was 10:59 a.m. -- one minute before the war officially ended.
One historian has speculated Gunther had been recently demoted from sergeant and was trying to prove himself worthy.
The last two men killed in Vietnam certainly did that.
Cpl. Charles McMahon, a Marine from Massachusetts, and Lance Cpl. Darwin Judge, a Marine from Iowa, were the final battle casualties of the Vietnam War.
Both were part of the security detail for the U.S. evacuation in Saigon when a Vietnamese rocket attack took their lives on April 29, 1975.
Their bodies were taken to a nearby hospital, but then a mistake was made.
The next day as the final American contingent left Vietnam, the hospital told the military the bodies had been evacuated.
They hadn't been, and it took a year and negotiations by U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy to get the bodies back.
Even then, it was another 25 years before Judge was given a Marine burial.
Maybe there's a lesson there. Let's not delay any honors this weekend.
Take a moment and remember why we have this holiday.