In the opening of the movie Saving Private Ryan, an aging World War II veteran visits the grave of the fellow soldier who saved his life all those years ago.
We don’t know of another movie that can bring you to tears in the first five minutes.
Most of us can understand, at a gut level, the emotions the veteran is feeling. Bottomless gratitude. Humility. Guilt. Fear – that his life might not have measured up to the sacrifice made for him.
The thing is, we all walk in that veteran’s shoes today. Though most of us will never be on a battlefield, and we won’t ever have the privilege of knowing them, we all have been saved, to some degree, by an American serviceman or woman. Our liberties, our property, our way of life and our lives themselves all depend on that blanket of protection the U.S. Armed Forces risks everything to spread over us.
At the very least, they leave their families – or just move them repeatedly all over the planet – to train and mobilize for our safety. They risk deployment to war zones – in recent years, especially, multiple deployments. They often come back with lost limbs or life-changing trauma unseen by the human eye.
If they come back at all.
“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)
What about those who lay down their lives for people they will never meet?
Memorial Day has become synonymous with the start of summer, a manmade seasonal bookend with Labor Day. It has become a day for most of us to rest, eat, enjoy family and friends, stick our toes into old-fashioned summertime fun. It’s certain our fallen troops would want all that for us. But in turn, we should all be mindful of their sacrifices, which helped make our freedom and peace possible.
Especially, of all days, today.
It’s easy to let the day slip by without doing that. There’s a lot going on, most of it pure fun. But here’s the other thing: It’s easy to disregard the whole notion of sacrifice today. Most of us, having lived through an era of bounty, have rarely been asked to forgo our creature comforts, much less our freedom, families, limbs or lives.
The end of the military draft and advent of the volunteer fighting force has meant that Americans haven’t been asked to sacrifice militarily; our fighting men and women do that willingly.
The veteran in Saving Private Ryan knew his fallen comrade. Most of us don’t know ours. We must imagine them. And that takes a modicum of thought.
It’s sad little in return, though, isn’t it?
Our challenge today, then, is twofold, but straightforward and simple.
First, to remember. To visit that gravesite, either physically or mentally, and thank a warrior who died to protect you. He or she did more to protect your family than you will ever be called upon to do yourself.
Our second challenge is to live lives that are worthy of our protectors’ suffering and sacrifice. Our fallen look down on us from above now. Heaven help us if they should find us wanting.
In the movie, the dying soldier, with his last breath, tells the soon-to-be veteran: “Earn this. Earn it.”
So should we all.