Two days ago I was a guest of the Center for Ethics and Leadership at the United States Air Force Academy. When I scheduled my visit, I did not realize that Wednesday was graduation for the eleven hundred or so cadets. Part of the graduation ceremony was an air show performed by the Thunderbirds, the elite pilot group that flies F-16s boasting a stars and stripes paint scheme.
The Thunderbirds performance was breathtaking and accentuated the atmosphere of excellence and achievement honored and recognized that day. The day before was my last day of the school year teaching my fifth grade students at the elegant Ebert Polaris Elementary School. The words I shared with the fifth graders, my commencement statement, as it were, harmonized with the themes permeating the Academy. Rather than tell them platitudes such as “you can be anything you want to be” or “don’t fear failure” or “never abandon your dreams” – all worthwhile aspirations but sometime a little too abstract for students to grasp—I gave the fifth grade students six words and challenged them to pursue those qualities.
Beauty, Character, Excellence, Honor, Humility and Wisdom
A steadfast pursuit of those qualities will lead to a life of virtue. The ethics of the Air Force Academy are built upon, in part, those six words. Now, a few days after that experience, most in the United States celebrate Memorial Day. Moments ago I read Ralph Kinney Bennett’s essay, Memorial Day is not about Death. It is About Duty. The article resonated in me more powerfully because of my experiences at Ebert Polaris and at the Academy.
I share parts of the article, but I encourage you to read the entire piece. http://american.com/archive/2012/may/duty-and-sacrifice
Memorial Day is not about death. It is about duty.
For the majority of Americans, Memorial Day is first and foremost a three-day weekend. Time to watch the Indianapolis 500 or a baseball game; time to open the swimming pool or have a picnic. The American flag will be appropriated to embellish ads for supermarkets, department stores, car dealers, and home improvement centers. Sales on everything from garden fertilizer to bedroom furniture will be accompanied by perfunctory messages urging us to “remember those who died for our country” as we clip our coupons and make our way to the mall.
It is perhaps inevitable that days set aside for even the most poignant purposes soon become mere “holidays.” The majority of people observe them as such, ignoring even their rote civic rituals. So it is with Memorial Day. Only a relatively small core of people–veterans, those still in the military, their relatives, a cadre of willing, obliged, or calculating politicians, and those citizens who retain a vestigial sense of tradition or patriotism–plan and participate in its observation.
It is a time to remember that who we are and what we are as a nation unique in history has depended on our sense of duty and its inevitable call to sacrifice.
Memorial Day is not about death.
It is about duty.
And about the ultimate limit of duty–sacrifice.
ALVIN P. CAREY 1916 – 1944 S/Sgt 38 Inf 2nd Div
A few feet below this monument, a newer, smaller stone, emplaced years later, bears Staff Sergeant Carey’s name and the words CONGRESSIONAL MEDAL OF HONOR. I never look down at those gray rectangles set against the green grass without my mind rushing back to a hot day in July 1948 when, as a little boy, I sat in a church pew transfixed by something I had never seen before–a coffin covered completely by a fresh new American flag.
The nearest most folks will get to any graveyard, let alone a military cemetery, is a file photo in the local newspaper or obligatory footage on the television news.
Alvin Carey, quiet, bookish Alvin Carey, had come home. His body had been removed from a military grave in France and brought back to the green and forested valley he loved. I remember little about that day except my restlessness in the heat and the creaking sound of the floor and wooden pews in Laughlintown Christian Church as I stared at that flag-draped coffin and tried to imagine a soldier inside. It would be many, many years before I understood who he was and what he had done.
He worked at various jobs around Ligonier until, in January 1941, he joined the U.S. Army. By the end of that year, Pearl Harbor had been attacked and the United States was at war.
And so it was that on an August day in 1944, near the French village of Plougastel, Sgt. Carey, commanding a machine gun squad, found himself and his men pinned down by withering fire from German troops in and around a concrete pillbox high on a hill called 154. We will never know what went through Carey’s mind as machine gun bullets poured down on his exposed position 200 yards below that pillbox. He had placed his guns as best he could to return fire and tried to find what shelter he could for his men. He had done his duty.
Killing one German infantryman who suddenly confronted him, Carey finally managed to reach a point just under the incessant muzzle flashes bursting from the narrow slit in the concrete face of the pillbox. He began throwing his grenades. He was trying to aim them directly into the slit where the German machine guns played back and forth. To do so he had to expose himself directly to the fire.
Whatever the combination of calculation and inchoate fear and anger within him, it is doubtful that the words duty or sacrifice or any thoughts connected with them crossed his mind.
Machine gun bullets tore into his body, knocking him back. He got up. With his life fast bleeding out of his shattered body, he got up. In the crisp, spare words of his Medal of Honor citation, “Undaunted, he gathered his strength and continued his grenade attack.” Carey, a pretty good baseball player, finally pitched one grenade through the slit straight into the pillbox, killing the crew and silencing the guns. Then he fell dead. Stunned by what they had just seen, the men of the 38th rushed up Hill 154 and ended German resistance in that area.
Medal of Honor citations are notably chaste in their narration, so we can only guess Carey’s state of mind when, with “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life,” he went beyond the edge of duty that long ago August day. Whatever the combination of calculation and inchoate fear and anger within him, it is doubtful that the words duty or sacrifice or any thoughts connected with them crossed his mind.
But the sense was there. The sense that this thing had to be done, and Carey was there to do it. And thus, on an obscure hill by a tiny village in Brittany, he fulfilled his duty and went beyond—to the ultimate sacrifice.
You may have your own personal touchstone to remember Memorial Day. A friend or relative lost in Afghanistan or Iraq, or on the high seas, or in the air. Perhaps someone who never returned from Korea or Vietnam, or the Marine barracks in Lebanon. Remember them. Give thanks for them. Consider, for a few moments, the cost of duty.
If no such personal connection exists, go and visit a cemetery. Go to those little flags fluttering by the stones. Pick out one, or just consider the hundreds, the thousands, the hundreds of thousands, that mark the long road of duty… and of sacrifice.
Ralph Kinney Bennett is a contributing writer to THE AMERICAN.