Thinking about soldiers makes my heart hurt, a little.
For the past three years, anything and everything having to do with the American military – especially the US Army – has been influenced by my understanding of the events surrounding the death in Iraq of Pfc. LaVena Johnson of Florissant, Missouri. The ruling of suicide as the cause of her death, as determined by military investigators; the anguish and anger of her father and mother as their pleas to renew the investigation of the case have met with stony silence and resistance from authorities. Interest from legislators ebbs and flows – mostly ebbs – and progress has come slowly indeed. Three years is a long time in which to see little change, and so LaVena’s fate has come to color everything – for me – when it comes to military service.
There is more involved, however.
My father served in the Air Force for twenty years. His duty carried him to far countries, and we – my mother, my brother, and myself – saw little of him for long periods of time. We finally came together as a family for the last two years of his stint, when we moved from South Carolina to live together at Whiteman Air Force Base, then home of the Minuteman missile. Dad ended his service as a technical sergeant. After that, we moved back to South Carolina.
My father died of cancer a few years afterwards.
I never felt that I knew him – he had been gone so often, and for so long – and I think it is fair to say that he did not know me. Military service came to mean absence. It was just a consequence of wearing the uniform. I was always proud of my father’s uniform. Never knew the man, not really, but I was proud that he had served.
The tension between absence and pride is not meant to be reconciled, and yet everyone with a loved one in uniform must find a way to balance the two. The necessity of doing so is why we always make the distinction, whether or not we realize it or admit it, between citizens and soldiers. On a basic level, though, the distinction does not exist: the sacrifice made by the soldier in answering a call to arms is mirrored by the sacrifice made by those who have to let them go.
So when the death of a soldier goes unanswered by those in charge, it is an insult to the soldier’s sacrifice, and to ours.
This is a day for veterans, a day in which to give them the honor they deserve for having subordinated themselves to something greater than the individual. That does not obviate the injustice of the unanswered death of soldiers such as LaVena Johnson; rather, it underscores the necessity of doing justice by her, and by her family, in the name of their sacrifice.
Though I did not know my father well, I believe that he would agree.