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On Memorial Day, It’s Personal


For total and blissful relaxation, few things can compete with a deep Sunday morning sleep. Oblivious to the unfolding sunrise whose rays were gradually illuminating my room, I slept like a statue, in a state of suspended consciousness when, deep in the foggy recesses of my mind, I heard a muted tone. It was a constant tone, like a car horn, off in the distance somewhere.

Let it go to perdition. I’m sleeping. But the horn kept going. Indeed, it seemed to grow louder, pushing through my slumbering daze. My mind began to stir. Why would a car horn be sounding early on a Sunday morning? Why would a car horn be sounding early on any morning at Kunsan Air Base, Republic of South Korea, where troops couldn’t bring their cars? With a start, I sat bolt upright in bed and realized  it was no car horn. It was the base alert siren, and that particular alert signaled an imminent attack.

Standing orders under such circumstances required personnel to be at their posts within just a few minutes of the alert without such niceties as a shower, a shave, or even brushing one’s teeth. Quickly, donning my uniform and full “battle rattle” (helmet, flak vest, a load-bearing equipment set arrayed with everything from ammo packs and canteen to a gas mask and chem gear), I felt the sudden need to take a moment to pray.

Kneeling by my bunk, I prayed neither for victory nor for survival, but merely that if things went wrong they would find enough pieces of me to send back home for my family to bury. To my surprise, I found myself choking back tears. Then, with the knowledge of just how many minutes it would take for North Korean aircraft and armament to reach us, I sprinted from the barracks to my duty station.

As things turned out, the whole exercise was exactly that — an exercise. The base commander wanted to see how prepared his troops were to engage the enemy after a typical Saturday night’s revelry. It was an illuminating lesson for all involved, and reminded all of us, who thanked the Almighty that live ordinance wasn’t raining down, just how easily events could take a deadly turn at a moment’s notice.

Sometimes It’s Fast, Sometimes It’s Slow

You see, for those at the pointy end of America’s spear, military service is not accompanied by the sharp click of heels marching in precise cadence, nor by the polish of brilliant uniforms and shimmering medals, but rather by the chaotic and violent concussion of battle, the salt-white residue of sweat and dirt on battle dress uniforms, the realization that the only way to keep from throwing up inside one’s gas mask from sheer exhaustion is to swallow it back down, and the knowledge, constantly tugging at one’s soul, that it only takes one wrong step, one wrong turn, or one blink of an eye to go from Veteran’s Day to Memorial Day.

For some, however, events don’t unfold in an instant. Artie Hodapp, known as a “spitfire” and “the life of the party” by his friends, deployed to Korea in 1950. “He was a hearty laugher and would find humor in almost anything,” his sister Francis recalled. Assigned to the Fifth Regimental Combat Team, 24th Infantry Division, Artie was on the front lines on April 12, 1951, during China’s “Spring Offensive” to take Seoul when he was taken prisoner.

Subsisting on a diet of pasty cattle feed, many of Artie’s fellow POWs fell victim to dysentery and something their comrades called “Give-Up-Itis.” On July 3, 1951, Hodapp literally starved to death on a dirt floor in a ten-by-twelve-foot hut. We know the date of his death only because another POW scratched the date on his own combat boot as secret documentation.

Four years ago, Artie’s remains were returned and, with his sister Francis there to welcome him home, he was buried on American soil. Another Korean War POW, Clyde Fruth, was on hand for Artie’s funeral, saying, through his own tears, “All the guys over there, they all said that if they died they don’t want to be left over there.” The term “home” takes on a new significance when one is far away and survival is far from certain.

The American Revolution Lives On

In November of 1777, Private Joseph Plumb, an American Revolutionary War soldier, described the siege at Fort Mifflin, Delaware, thus:

Some of our officers endeavored to ascertain how many guns were fired in a minute by the enemy, but it was impossible, the fire was incessant. In the height of the cannonade it was desirable to hoist a signal flag for some of our galleys that were lying above us to come down to our assistance. The officers inquired who would undertake it. As none appeared willing for some time, I was about to offer my services. I considered it no more exposure of my life than it was to remain where I was. The flagstaff was of easy ascent, being an old ship’s mast, having shrouds to the ground, and the round top sill remaining. While I was hesitating, a sergeant of the artillery offered himself. He accordingly ascended to round top, pulled down the flag to affix the signal flag to the halyard, upon which the enemy, think we had struck [surrendered], ceased fire in every direction and cheered. ‘Up with the flag!’ was the cry of our officers in every part of the fort. The flags were accordingly hoisted, and the firing was immediately renewed. The sergeant then came down and had not gone half a rod from the foot of the staff when he was cut in two by a cannon shot. …The enemy’s shot cut us up. I saw five artillerists belonging to one gun cut down by a single shot, I saw men who were stooping to be protected by the works; but not stooping low enough, split like fish to be broiled.

You see, after the rockets has cast its red glare, the thing has to land someplace. Our liberty, advanced as it was by honorable and courageous men, was won in the mud and muck of battle, amidst the chaos of frantic orders, the screams of the wounded, and the sound of pitiless lead shattering bones and ripping flesh.

The question necessarily becomes one of what motivated these and succeeding generations of Americans to lay down their lives? Granted, military members fight for each other, but there has to be some larger cause, no? Otherwise, Saddam Hussein’s finest would not have been surrendering to packs of reporters during the first Gulf War.

Maybe, just maybe, some part of what the British mockingly referred to as “the damned rebels” remains in the patriot’s heart. Perhaps some essence of the American Revolution, which rejects the statist’s proposition that societal greatness is achieved only through the coercive powers of centralized authority, resides still in the soldier’s spirit.

The Heroes Never Make It Home

Several years ago, a senior citizen and regular caller to Sean Hannity’s radio show was pressed to describe his experience storming the beach at Normandy, or D-Day. I listened as Marty told of having to push the bodies of his friends into the water because the first couple of rows of men had been cut down in a storm of bullets as the door to the landing craft was lowered.

As he described what it was like to wade through the corpses, while bullets whizzed about, striking men down all around him, Marty began to weep openly on the air. It seemed his old heart was breaking as the deep sobs rose from his very soul. Deftly moving the discussion away from the horrific battle scene, Hannity told Marty that he was a hero, and Marty disagreed, saying, “The heroes are the guys who never made it home.”

This is why we honor America’s war dead. This is what Memorial Day is about. It’s not about cookouts and beer, or sleeping in, or various outdoor projects. This is why the Honor Guard sentinel at Arlington performs his duties with utter precision, executing 21 perfect steps across a black mat before pausing for 21 seconds, after which he faces north for another 21 seconds, executes a flawless “shoulder arms” movement that places his weapon furthest from the Tomb of the Unknowns thereby putting himself between the Tomb and any threat, and then carefully executes another 21 steps to the opposite end of the mat, a routine he will repeat throughout his assigned watch.

This is why men who spend most of their time in a wheelchair will struggle to rise and salute when the American flag passes in parades. This is why the sound of “Taps” and the crack of a 21-gun salute jars the hearts of those whose daddies and husbands will never come home — those for whom every day is Memorial Day. This is why we would do well to pause and remember, and thank God above for those who have paid the price for our freedom with their blood.