America is because they were. We must not forget. For so long as we remember, their sacrifices shall never have been in vain.
When my buddy Omar went through boot camp, we exchanged letters often, he more faithful than I. When I ran out of humdrum daily life to discuss, I'd write tales my dad told me of his navy days or I'd share examples of my creative writing passion, usually a quick poem or story with a patriotic theme. I shared the tale below with him once, and he informed me that his CO reread the letter to his fellow marines. I have since polished it, and I would like to offer this today in remembrance of those who serve so that I can write.
The Last Casualty
Ah, the days of wine and roses. We had joy and song, even though the air was thick with ash and death. We celebrated every second we could, for no other reason than we had survived another hour. That was plenty of excuse for a pair of soft lips surrounding a gentle smile, with a lyrical voice and an angelic face, or a pint shared with our brothers at a rare cafe along our route. Bitter, but oh so sweet the recollections are that flood my senses.
It never occurred to us that we could lose the battle, you see. We didn’t have the luxury of that choice. For the sake of the world we could not fail our mission. The fears we had were more immediate in nature than losing. Would the sniper fire claim the life of my platoon brother next to me? Or worse yet, would that round have my name on it? These were the fears we faced every minute, but never expressed aloud. There wasn’t time. We were there to do a job, nothing more.
We were called a lot of names in those days. Heroes, warmongers, soldiers of freedom, cannon fodder….every name true in reflection. None of those names mattered though. We were brothers, young, and full of piss and vinegar. We were saving the world from itself. We believed we would change the course of history, and we did. Although, I imagine this future is not what we expected the present would become.
How we all came to pass that way will be forever argued among scholars who did not have to fight for every square inch of space in mud and acrid smoke with gas masks and bayonets. It is perhaps easier for them, those who wear suits in corner offices, drink lattes, and squander the freedoms they forget they have. Or perhaps they do understand and I judge them too harshly? I knew once the impulsiveness and eagerness of youth. It was idealism, after all, that led me to the lowlands to fight. Now those suits see in my face the old man I have become, and not the soldier battle-scarred and terrified of the night. Nightmares plague me incessantly, returning me to the age when cousin was pitted against cousin, and the whole world was consumed in angry flames. My men at least were honored and loved. Those who eventually followed us were spit upon by treasonous speaking do-gooders who have no right to judge. They didn’t bleed while the best of men died, listening to the horrific screaming of the injured. They could turn down the volume or change the channel.
Fear not, my band of brothers. Your memories I have kept faithfully. Those who have not may hold their manhood cheap, for they are not men, and I pity them.
This field in
lays fallow among a few scattered patches of red poppies, dancing happily in the summer breezes, and a few mass grave markers, standing stoic as testimony to Mankind’s darkest hours. A fitting end perhaps, to the stories that will remain unheard of glories that would never be. Here, among the trenches and the barbed wire, I lost my innocence as did the countless I fought alongside. The man I became was born from this ground, once scorched by fire and saturated with blood from the sacrifices of thousands of boys and a belief that the war would end all war. Knowing now what I didn’t know then, I still would not choose a different path, changing any of the events that touched my life. The trenches are gone, vanished beneath the protective blanket of earth. By the grace of God, no one will soon remember they ever existed. May we be lost forever among dry pages of history text books that collect dust on the shelves in school libraries. France
If I had regret, it would be only that it was I who walked away from the trenches when so many more deserving men did not. Little Joey Petrelli, “Micky” Donnelly, Sean Wyatt, Corporal Watersone, Sergeant Brady, were a mere few of those that I would gladly have traded places with. Those men should have had my mundane civilian afterlife. I can only hope for their glory, not mine, that I fought the good fight, and lived out the remainder of my days to the fullest. I hope that will be all the tribute they need, for it’s all the tribute of any value I have to give.
I have made this difficult trip to say goodbye to the boy I once was, the boy I lost here. I am in my final hours, so my doctor tells me, and I am ready to join my fallen brethren, my beloved parents, and my dearest heart, and all those who went before me. Weep not for me, for I am happy to make this journey. My bones are weary and I wish to sleep.
This field is silent. I hold my breath to listen to the absense of machine gun fire, though I hear it still. I am the last man standing who remembers. When I fall, no echo of the past will sound. Nature has reclaimed the common clay beneath my feet.Like a mother's gentle caress, peace has kissed this valley and cleansed it of its sin. The smell of fear and the stench of death have not lingered here. The songs we sang, the women we wooed, the laughter we shared, the stories we made up are long since forgotten. The sun is warm and brings me comfort. I will lay me down here among the poppies and watch the clouds roll past until I can see the heavens part and angels bid me welcome.
To you, who have found me, know that I am content, and I am where I wish to be. In my pack is the compass I used to bring me here, both times, a small pocket knife used often to open ration tins,, and a picture faded to yellow bearing the faces of those who I hope are waiting for me to take my place among them. I have nothing else to leave you except Hope. I hope you will never seek the path that will lead you here to this end, in one of many forgotten fields. However, should the trenches find you and should you be faced with the loss of all your tomorrows, do not hesitate to fight for the sake of your brother, celebrate all the tiny moments you can, loose upon your enemy all the fury of hell, and may God’s Grace bring you safely home.