The natural human instinct is to run away from danger. That panicky, heart-pounding urge to turn tail and flee is often good — it’s part of our self-preservation and survival.
But there’s something special about the individuals who push that aside and choose to face danger head-on. I think about the men and women who put on the uniform of our country, raise their right hand, and solemnly swear to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” They make up only one percent of our country’s population and they shoulder burdens — physically, emotionally, and mentally — that most Americans will never have to bear. They do it for that very reason: so that most Americans will never have to bear those burdens. As General Douglas MacArthur said, “The Soldier, above all other people, prays for peace, for he must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.”
The world’s greatest fighting force doesn’t undertake this mission because they are forced to. They are not victims. They volunteer. This powerful word is defined as “a person who freely offers to take part in an enterprise or undertake a task,” and it perfectly embodies what our servicemembers do. They freely take on the task of defending this country, their comrades in arms, and you and me — to the point of death if duty so calls. While the U.S. military draft wasn’t abolished until January 27, 1973, our troops have a long and storied history of volunteering to put their lives on the line for the sake of this country.
To me, that’s part of the power of Memorial Day. John 15:13 in the Bible says, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” When an American servicemember is killed in the line of duty, they don’t lose their life. They give it. They lay it down for what they love: God, country, family, their fellow troops, our freedom. As G.K. Chesterton so poignantly said, “The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.”
As we honor those who gave their lives while wearing the uniform of this country this weekend, let’s not immortalize their memories as superhuman giants capable of great heroics — because the truth is even more powerful. The truth is they were ordinary people, who rose to the call to accomplish extraordinary things, motivated by an extraordinary love of “what is behind them.”
One such hero was my friend, Army Major John P. Pryor, MD. Dr. Pryor was a talented and well-known trauma surgeon at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. On 9/11/2001, Dr. Pryor hugged his wife and three children goodbye and headed straight to Ground Zero to provide care. Deeply moved by what he saw there, John decided to join the Army Reserves and later deployed to Iraq where we served together as combat surgeons in 2006. John went back to Iraq in 2008 and, on Christmas Day, was hit by a mortar and killed. He was 42 years old.
We can all learn from the quote by Albert Schweitzer that Dr. Pryor kept on his desk: “Seek always to do some good, somewhere… Even if it’s a little thing, do something for those that need help, something for which you get no pay but the privilege of doing it.”
Today, we remember John and every man and woman like him who volunteered to serve when our country needed them and laid down their lives. We can never repay that ultimate sacrifice, but we can honor it for what it was: one of the greatest gifts of love.
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