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Whether because you merely wanted to rebel against your mother country, you wanted to take a stand against tyranny, or you were in it for the glory, you fought and bled for me.  You died for me.  And I do not know your name.  Many in this country know precious little about the war that granted your people, our people, freedom from oppression.  I have lived where you fought, and I have seen the river named for that fight so costly the water flowed deep red, and the tears of your mothers, of your families, burned tracks down their faces as they faced a new life, a new country, and a new freedom … yet without so many of those who fought to the death to guarantee it.


A poor family you were, and one without much to offer in worldly possessions.  But your pride was rich and vivid and your courage matched its stride as you stood up and volunteered your life for … a country that was yet to be.  Colonies, then.  And as you spilled your blood and it ran that river red, it became the ink in Fate’s pen as a new country’s name was written for all time: The United States of America.  Your life ended before your new country’s began, but it was a noble end, a courageous end, a necessary end.  The rules of war then are as now: first, that young men die; second, that you nor anyone else can change the first.


Your name and much about you is lost to antiquity, but your deeds are as visible now as they were when the blade on your bayonet found its target in the chest of a British soldier, of a Hessian mercenary, of your enemy.


Thank you for defending my country.


A few years later, more military action was seen by this nation’s soil.  A country in many ways still in its infancy fought again and, though not alone or principally targeted, emerged still standing, still breathing, still a nation on this Earth along with so many others.  And you fought … you fought again.  It was not this time to give me my freedom but to ensure it, but the fight was just as real, just as bloody, just as important to our country’s history.  Again your bayonet found its way into the heart of your enemy as your bullets charged through that same enemy as Fate herself driving propelling that small, gray ball through the muscle, through the breath, through the lifeblood and through the heart of that enemy before leave it, perhaps, to inflict pain on another.


It was not for fame that you handed your life over to a new country’s protective forces.  It was not for glory or honor or the chance to shoot another man.  You believed then, as you believed when you held your own mortality in your hand and watched your life pour out of your body and turn the ground red, that some among us were called to ensure the freedom of others even if it meant your life.  You did not shirk this duty; you stood up and let it be known you would take it as the most precious, dutiful position it was.  You would strive to be what your country needed, and historians’ account of that conflict shows your success.


And still I know nothing more about you than you were.  As a collective you are now, in history, as The Unites States Military.  I do not know your name, I do not know your rank, I do not know your home state or if you left your children without a father when all was said and done.  All I need to know is that I have you to thank for my freedom.


Thank you for defending my country.


You were called upon again, at the other end of this then-teenage country, to defend your freedom, her freedom, our freedom, my freedom.  You and your family risked your lives to ensure mine now.  Knowing you might die, knowing you might never live to see your country again as you charged forth to make this land secure for all her people.  The war was not so easy this time, nor did you have the allies you’d had before.  Many more of your fellow soldiers died at the hand of an enemy more fierce, but ultimately doomed to the fate of so many others: defeat.  Your force met, your force equaled, your force surpassed and your force claimed land for your country and your people; my country and my people.


It was an educated decision, not one based in the desire to see how many men you could kill in a day.  It was the realization that some men must volunteer their lives to ensure that so many others are kept safe from that hand you risked holding every day you fought.  It was a hand that forcefully gripped men you had known for years … some no more than teenagers, some veterans of a conflict some 20 years before.  One or two had tales to tell of their grandfathers going hand-to-hand against Britain’s finest and coming out unscathed.  Some had tales that did not end so well for their own grandfathers.  And for those who had fallen, for those who had risen because of them, and for those who had yet to do either, you fought.  Every charge you made, every bullet you sent to find an enemy body, every time you saw our flag waved you knew might be your last.


And still I do not know your name.  I would not know you if I were shown your picture; if I read of your exploits I would not be able to say “Oh, I read about him in class yesterday!”  I know nothing of you but that you were successful, and a nation again challenged emerged victorious—scathed, but victorious.  And once again her people were safe.


Thank you for defending my country.


A different call it was in the middle of that century, as a country rose up against itself.  The question that would be answered: can a country, once divided by blood, sweat, tears, bullets and itself … can it withstand its own brutality?  That question was answered five years later as a nation emerged badly hurt, but still its heart beat with your fife and drum.  Still her flag was held up to say “We are here and we will not be defeated.”  The enemy, this time, was your own brother.  And when it counted, you triumphed over your brother and set a people free, knowing it might mean ending your life but knowing also that it might mean beginning others’ lives.  Again you heard the call to serve your country, my country, our country—and you did.


Your brother before this started became your target after it, and your father was forced to make that decision no parent should ever face.  And in remembering that sometimes, to play the hero at the end, one must play the villain once, you were required to send your brother to an enemy’s final resting spot: beside his father, your father, in a cemetery of the fallen but not forgotten.  You returned home a shell of yourself, having seen what your own hands could do you vowed to yourself that day what they would never do again, as you hung up your weapon and made a new life for yourself saving life, not taking it away.  And when anybody asked why you had spent so much time and effort to become a doctor, you looked them in the eye and had only this to say: “In the war, I was required to take lives.  Now I am given to saving lives.”


And today we are here because of it.  We are here because you, soldier, though I know not your name nor much else of you, you risked your life, your body, your livelihood to ensure that so many others might know the freedom you had known so long.  And in the end, a people are free and your deeds, as a whole, as the military of our country, forever remembered.


Thank you for defending my country.


Another call came some 35 years later, and, ever vigilant, ever willing, ever proud and strong and brave and victorious, you answered the call as though your life depended on it.  This fight was not so cruel, so divisive, so painful as the last, but the importance is the same: your country, my country, our country … still free.  In a country where so often people failed and fail at their jobs, yours was done and with pride and success.  You did not have to bury so many of your brothers after this call was answered in full, but their hearts stopped beating for your freedom, for my freedom, for our freedom.  The grave unmarked, maybe, but not forgotten nor in vain.


Few have had to call an enemy brother, or a brother enemy, so deeply and painfully as you did.  Each of you believed as strongly as the other in the cause you risked your life for.  And in the end it was not due to fear nor cowardice but Fate’s hand yet again gripping a hand and pulling it away from the fight to every battlefield soldier’s final resting place.  You sent another man to that place, as one you had called father before you called dead when all was over.  And your duty done, your task completed, you vowed to make your life’s work from that point the polar opposite of your past actions.  The lives you had taken would be redeemed in the lives you would pull away from Fate’s hand to ensure that your fight, your task, your pain was not in vain.  And when someone asked you why you became a doctor, you looked into that person’s eyes and simply said “I have given two lives to Fate’s eternal hand.  Now I take lives from that hand and keep them with their owners.”


My lone regret is that as I write this tribute to you I cannot call you by name.  You are as important to this country as you are faceless, for your mark is not by your individual accomplishment but what you and your fellow soldiers, your military, did to ensure your country, my country, our country today.  I can sit here and write this letter to you, but I cannot thank you by name.


Thank you for defending my country.


Your life was and is dedicated to serving this country.  I saw that when you responded to a call to go overseas and kill the evil power that could, and probably would, have spread further had it not been for your selfless bravery.  You charged forth and your blood was spilled on the farms and streets, on the countrysides and in the arms of your fellow soldiers.  You were killed by snipers, by tanks, by machine guns and by disease, but your sole aim, your sole duty, and your sole cause was the same: protect, uphold and maintain freedom.  You stood by with your fellow soldiers, some you felt you never really got to know because if you did, maybe you'd have seen they weren't allowed to be fighting because they were disabled, or too young, or too old, or they were your sisters and mothers and aunts and daughters, not your brothers.


You watched them die and they watched you die, and in the end you lost your best friend in that field in Southern France, then returned 50 years later as some phantom force pulled you to an especially ragged area of the landscape and, not knowing quite what was pulling your tired, beleaguered body along lo these 80 years of your life, you found the means to recognize that soul and his remains, dead but not forgotten.  And you left your Purple Heart pin on the ground there in silent thanks to your brother-in-arms, who got in front of you to get a better angle on the enemy just as a bullet came toward you.  That bullet found his chest, not yours.  It was you whom Fate meant to bring back with her that day.  You have told that story exactly once since that day, and your grandchildren, learning about this war 50 years later, now find out just how close their Grandpa came so many years ago to being one memory in his wife’s mind instead of dozens in theirs.


You had lost many friends, many brothers to that Great War, and ordinarily they were buried in graveyards by the local citizens.  And you wanted a proper burial for him then, but you could not find the body, and your unit had to press forward to meet that same enemy again who had taken the life of your friend.  And in your mind forever after that has been “I must … I will find him again and thank him for my life.”  You paused by his as-yet unmarked grave that day and remembered not a fearless man who always asked for the most difficult missions but a man just as you had been: scared, worried, homesick.  And just as unsure of himself as you were, his desire to right that one ultimate wrong was all he needed to charge forth and, ultimately, accept his death before the bleeding could be stopped.  And as you somehow, fifty years later, find through some unseen force the place you buried him so long ago, your heart can stop bleeding, stop hurting for the man who gave you life, as you are able to bring closure to his.


And you did your duty: you answered a call in the dead of the night and left your country to go fight another.  Today many of us cannot imagine what it must have been like to abandon everything you had known to go overseas and take a bullet for a people you had never met, but who have not forgotten you since  And so, in a then-emerging age of communication and news, you are immutably and for eternity enshrined in History’s annals.  Your picture is not lost to history now; no, whether it was your desire or not you are as much a part of history as anyone else in the world.  I have been to the graves of your fellow soldiers.  I have stood at the cross marking the grave of that man who joined his country’s Army in 1917 because the cause was right in his heart enough to entrust a growing family to his young wife and oldest son; 7 when he left, 9 when he died.  I have walked the crosses in the graves in France where your friends, your leaders, your men are laid to rest for eternity.  I have read the names of every man buried in that cemetery in Oise-Aigne, France; where that one man rests so do his comrades-in-arms, though he knew some not until he met them in that final resting place. And still, though I know your cause, I know your desires, I know your final resting places, and I know your victorious result, I know not your name.


Thank you for defending my country.


Another call came, this one sooner than the first, and demanding more yet.  The evil that had been thought dead was re-incarnated and his targets many and more varied than before.  In the bloodiest conflict since 80 years before, your duty was the same: protect, uphold and maintain the freedom you had and others had been deprived of.  Blood spilled by that evil all surpasses imaginations today, and the reasons are no simpler to believe.  And in the face of certain death, at times, when you were told “Half of you men I see before me today I will not see again”, you fought.  So many miles away from home your convictions were as strong there as they have ever been, as you saw the task all too clearly: destroy this evil and restore to its victims the freedom that had been theirs.


You were victorious at last, after seeing more blood shed in more horrific ways each day than any human should ever have to experience.  You did not choose to fight this time, but neither did you complain.  You were chosen.  You knew the task at hand and, whatever your previous life’s calling, answered this call and with strength.


And when it was done, you returned home to a new country with more heroes than before: your magazines of bullets, your parachutes, the riveting on your bombers and spy planes were the handiwork of your wives, your daughters, your mothers.  Your fellow American citizens who recognized the call to arms and, when they could not be with you fighting evil on the front lines and in the skies, ensured you were as well-prepared as a mother can make her son.  And you were prepared, and you fought well, and you won.


I can know your name now, and I can look upon your face, upon your tomb, upon your future.  I can read about your specific accomplishments.  I can watch a video of trench footage, of your fellow soldiers liberating so many people.  There are things you saw that are lost to time because the pain that struck you as deeply as anything else this world can offer was too great; all I can say is thank you for doing it and doing it as it ought to be done.  Now I can know your name.  I can know what state that fighter pilot was from, and that he left a wife and four children behind when his plane was shot down by anti-aircraft guns.  I can know that the man in that paratrooper suit was the youngest son of a lawyer and an author, and that they lost five sons to that evil.  I can know, as that colonel held one of his men as that man died before his eyes, that his mind went back not to a proverbial son but to the son who was born dead, twenty years before, to a young cadet and his wife.  I can know that holding that soldier during his final breaths gave his commanding officer, at last, closure.  He was holding a man, a boy who could as easily have been his child as the child of a Texas family whose son enlisted on his birthday in 1943 and was twenty years old on that day in 1945 when he died.


I can know your name, soldier.  But what I also know is that your work is not the work of one man or ten men but a nation standing behind its men and women as they silenced that evil and returned to a country changed forever.


Thank you for defending my country.


Again you were called and to a country so small and in that same thought no different than any other you, we, had fought for.  It was not familiarity you saw in the fields and forests of that nation but a landscape alien to so many of you.  And you did not buck from the task at hand.  You fought, you bled, you died and you are remembered today.


You were in love then with a girl whose parents were as vocally opposed to that conflict as anything else in the world (including your relationship with her).  Against their wishes, knowing your number might get called, but knowing also that love waits for nobody and you could not assume that you would be able to hold her the next day, you asked her to be your wife.  For three blessed weeks you woke up to her, came home to her and went to sleep with her.  But all things in life do not end happily ever after, and as you had predicted your number got called.  And so she was left mostly alone, estranged from parents who could find not one redeeming quality in their son-in-law and did not hide this fact.  Her friends thought her a fool for marrying so young and someone who might not come back alive.


Two months later she wondered if you had gotten the letter she’d sent you.  Your unit had been moving fast and the supply chain was not always reliable.  Had you heard about her doctor visit?  Did you know you were now fighting for one more person as yet unborn?  That child was born to a widow and one who did not try to find another husband to replace the true love she had lost at the hands of a well placed mine.  That child, like many, grew up with a mother strong enough to be two parents; she had to be.  Hundreds of times your firstborn answered the question “Where is your daddy?  What does he do?  What does he look like?”  And sometimes your child couldn’t answer because of the pain; sometimes because a picture did not suffice to describe; sometimes because the words would not form themselves for an answer.  To your child, at times, you were no more than a name; you were not there and could not be there because you had given your life to ensure the freedom of your wife and child.


And I can know your name.  I can look at your picture, I can read your story, and I can meet your children.  And again my dilemma is this: though I can celebrate your individual accomplishment, your failings and your triumphs, yours is, has been and will always be about what you and your fellow soldiers have done together.


Thank you for defending my country.


Half a world away and from a smaller people, but an equally important cause, you again took a plane, a boat or a submarine to defend freedom.  Many of you did not return whole in mind and many of you did not return whole in body.  And a country perhaps still reeling from the after-effects of that most bloody war in Europe did not respond as it had before.  You did your duty and did not always come home to an appreciative crowd.  From a country so much of which was visibly opposed to your task to a country so visibly opposed to much of what you are, were and stood for, you traveled.  At times you wondered if the end would ever draw near.  Sometimes it did, all too soon in the dead of night as you were attacked in your sleep.  And when you returned to your homes, to your families and to your lives it was a return not always whole nor alive.


In many this did not inspire the honor, the ultimate justice, the sense of purity that other causes have created.  But in your heart I saw the same desire that shone in the hearts of those thirty years before you, when your fellow soldiers went to Europe.  The scenes of this fight were different; instead of fields and country sides, instead of farmhouses and signs in French, were rice paddies and jungles, straw huts and some language that at first was utterly indecipherable to you.  The cause was the same: right a wrong.  You did everything in your power short of leading a one-man charge into the heart of the enemy, and when you came home you were not given a hero’s welcome.  Much is still misunderstood about that conflict, but in the end these facts are left standing as truth: you risked your life for country, for your fellow citizens and for those you knew you had to protect even as they sometimes fought against you.  You were given a task and what you could do was done.  What you could not do was attempted with equally strong resolve, determination and heart.  Your best friend, who enlisted with you that day in 1967, did not leave that country alive or even at all; today you wonder what became of him.  And occasionally you see someone with your best friend’s eyes, nose and cheeks and wonder if an American sympathizer took him in, understanding that his gun, his grenades and, ultimately, his fists were not meant for her but those who would oppress her.


There is a wall in Washington, DC.  On it are engraved the names of those killed while serving their country.  And going to see that wall, running my fingers across those represented sometimes only by a first name, middle initial and last name, and looking at the tributes … some silent, some spoken, some raw emotion … touched me that day in May two years ago as much as anything has touched me before or since.  I am lucky.  Your friend, my grandfather, served for his country and with you and came back to his wife and children.  I was able to know him.  On that day in Washington I got to know many who did not meet that same fate.  And by so much as touching their names, or by looking at the letters or pictures or flowers or other memoirs and tributes left, I got to know you as well, soldier.  I did not see a name I had heard before on that wall and yet I know you.  I know you because you defended my country.


Thank you for defending my country.


Twelve years ago the call was given yet again to rise up against a tyrant and brutal man who had laid his iron fist down upon a tiny country with strong, but few, citizens.  Though few of your number lost their lives to that cause, you remember it, and I remember it, with pride.  This time, evil tried to take over a country rich in a resource that evil desired more strongly than much else.  You did not let him keep it.  And when he said “If I cannot have this, nobody can”, you took that power from him as well.  You put out the flames he had started and returned victorious.


You knew that by signing up to fight for your country that you could earn all the money you needed for college.  You knew you could exert minimal effort and get a lot more than you put in.  But instead of signing up for the smallest amount of responsibility possible, you were willing from the start to put yourself on the line if your military would let you stand there.  You made the most of your time in an occupation not known for its absolute safety when times get tough.  History emphasizes the winner, to be sure, but it also emphasizes the dead and injured.  You knew going into this that, from one standpoint, you didn’t have to.  But for you it was not a matter of “What do I have to do?” but “What can I do to make my country better?”  And the answer to that question, for you, was service in the military.


And when you came back from that tiny country, you did not hang up your helmet for the last time.  You did not get a sense as though this was your last hurrah.  And to that tiny nation you did not say “Goodbye” but “I’ll see you later.”  You meant to see it people later, and on later non-violent missions you did just that.  And each time you come back knowing that your duty will not be over until you are unable to do it.


I have met you.  I have gone to school with you and I have shaken your hand.  I have argued with you, laughed with you, chased you, discussed everything under the sun with you.  And if there is one thing I have learned from you it is that while individual accomplishments can be and are revealed, lauded, hailed and admired, that force of which you were part is a team.  And that is why today I remember you not by your rank or by your home state or your position in the armed forces, but for your response to that call.


Thank you for defending my country.


Now that call has come again.  And this time, as has happened before, opposition has not hidden.  It is not silent, at times not respectful, and it shows little sign of leaving.  And in the midst of this you have answered the call again.  You have answered it just as you did almost two hundred thirty years ago: with pride, with honor, with courage, and with the courage of your convictions.  And you will come away from this as you have so many times before: victorious.  Where freedom has not rung for too long you will ring the bell until a newly free people’s ears ring by themselves.  A starving, poor and desperate people will be able, once again, to breathe, to grow, to prosper and to count themselves among the fortunate on Earth.


I remember going clubbing with you the night before you were to report to basic training.  I know the desire is as strong now as it was that night for you.  And when your call came a few weeks ago, it was not just because of your wife and infant child that you answered it with pride and courage but for those two same people who are, in many ways, your life.  In your life there are three main sources of pride: your duty, your wife and your son.  And all that you do is comprised of all three sources.  That pride in your heart will guide you to victory over a people many of whom fight because if they do not, they are executed.  You knew that if you did not sign up to rid this world of another evil, someone else would.  They have done so before and they will do so as long as the call comes.  But you also knew that you could help.  And in for you, the ability to help must come with the effort to do so or the whole of it is a waste.


You will come back.  And when you come back, your pride will be intact and you will know that you have done something few others have the opportunity to do, let alone actually accomplishing it.


The news has emphasized individuals.  When two go down, they are hailed as American heroes.  When one is saved, her story shown on every news channel.  And when all is said and done, when the task you asked for is completed, when you are ready to come back to your country, my country, our country, I will have but these words to say to you:


Thank you for defending my country.