Something Worth Remembering – Memorial Day 2014

In the fall of 2009, I was on the back of a C-17 in Kabul Afghanistan when the aircrew announced that our flight would be conducting the first leg of a “dignified transfer.” In other words, traveling with us out of Kabul that morning was an American who had died in the defense of our nation.
We all stood solemnly as the aircrew carried the flag draped coffin into the fuselage. The crew reverently strapped down the coffin; just a short distance from where I would sit on this flight. I took note of the crisp, clean and beautiful American Flag. There have been many times when I have admired the beauty of that flag, but on this day it was different. The flag seemed to be saying, “take a long look at my colors and whenever you do, remember the fallen who I symbolize.”
For that entire flight, I wondered about the American in that flag-draped coffin. He was most certainly no different from you or I. He had a childhood; he had friends, family; he had dreams for the future and plans for all he had yet to accomplish in life. That was all over. He was returning home in silence, a hero fallen in battle. I thanked God for this man and prayed for his family.
This past Saturday, I was in Annapolis Maryland with my family. It is a beautiful city. We spent a great deal of time in the Maryland State House. It is a tremendous building, constructed (starting) in 1772 and still home to the Maryland legislature.
Annapolis served as the temporary capital of the United States from 1783-1784, and so I found myself imagining the conversations that took place in the historic halls. Certainly, the most significant event to take place in the senate chamber was the day General George Washington stood before congress and tendered his resignation as commander of the army. The representatives, many with tears streaming down their cheeks, accepted his resignation thereby establishing the supremacy of American civilian legislatures to the American military. Washington also fought back his emotions as he resigned. After years of war, brutal war against the world’s mightiest army, Washington could finally lay down his sword. I have no doubt that as the General stood in that chamber before his countrymen, he thought of the fallen. The many who had fought and died by his side in the great war of independence.
Outside the State House, there is a tremendous memorial statue in honor of revolutionary war hero Johann De Kalb. The statue is large and dark; depicting De Kalb with a sword in his hand, imploring his troops to fight on at the tragic Battle of Camden.
De Kalb’s story is a great one and uniquely American. Born in Germany, De Kalb served in the French army. He was an experienced battle-hardened veteran when the government of France sent him to the American colonies in 1768. De Kalb’s mission was to determine the mood of the colonists. However, De Kalb instead developed an admiration for the American colonists desire to create a new nation, conceived in liberty and the rights of man.
By 1777, De Kalb had returned to Maryland, this time in order to fight with the colonists. De Kalb eventually was commissioned as a General in the continental army. In 1780, Washington dispatched Johann De Kalb to South Carolina. The British were having some success in Charleston and Washington needed to act. De Kalb marched the armies of Maryland and Delaware to South Carolina. On the 16th of August, 1780 De Kalb’s forces would join with General Horatio Gates (the victor at Saratoga) and do battle against British forces on a battlefield near the small town of Camden, South Carolina.
The American plan devised by Gates was deeply flawed. In essence, Gates entrusted the left flank to the untested North Carolina militia. To make matters worse, that inexperience militia would face the infamous Raiders under the command of England’s skilled General Tarelton. Not surprisingly, the colonial militia was routed and retreated at full speed. General Gates mounted the fastest horse he could find and road all the way to Charlotte North Carolina.
De Kalb, leading the Maryland and Delaware troops on the right flank was unaware that the American left flank had dissolved. In fact, De Kalb’s troops were making gains on the right flank until the militia retreated. After Gates and the militia retreated, Cornwallis was able to redirect Tarelton’s forces to attack De Kalb’s forces from his unprotected left.
The result was a disaster for the colonists. The Maryland and Delaware forces were routed. De Kalb, by all accounts including the British, fought valiantly that day. The great German urged his troops to fight against withering odds. Eventually, De Kalb had his horse shot out from under him. Refusing to quit, he continued to fight on foot until he succumbed to a swarm of enemy combatants. De Kalb was shot three times and stabbed seven times by enemy bayonets. Tarelton’s account of the battle records that de Kalb could not comprehend the defeat of General Gates.
De Kalb lay dying for some days. The British out of respect for this great soldier gave him medical attention, but De Kalb’s fate was sealed. He hung on for three days. He would never return home to Maryland nor would he ever see France or Germany again. He would never see his family again. A British officer expressed his condolences to De Kalb. De Kalb, mortally wounded and dying responded simply:
“I thank you sir for your generous sympathy, but I die the death I always prayed for: the death of a soldier fighting for the rights of man.”
Memorial Day is a time of remembrance. It is not a time to thank veterans but rather to remember those who never returned from the battlefield to become veterans. Every American who has fallen in battle deserves our respect and admiration. These were and are real people with real stories. When they died, it left a hole in the lives of family and friends. The dead will not return to us; therefore they must never be forgotten.
The man in that coffin, who I was honored to fly with in a C-17, wasn’t all that different from Johann De Kalb. Like De Kalb, he answered his nation’s call to battle. Both would tell you that the fight was worth it. Bless them both and all who have died in battle. I pray that Americans commit to live lives worthy of their sacrifice.
Our current conflict reminds us all of the heavy cost of war. It is a brutal thing; this thing called war. Yes, but it is a necessary thing. There is so much sadness when an American serviceman dies on the field of battle. It is wrenching to think of that catastrophic loss for a family. Yet, we can take solace in this: our troops fight because they want a world in which the people of New York can go to work without the fear of some maniacs flying a plane into their building. They fight to stop despots with monstrous visions of a Thousand Year Reich. They fight so that totalitarian monsters, with half-baked ideas of global communism led by madmen hell-bent on creating the “New Soviet Man,” never achieve their goals. In short, the American military fights to protect the American ideal of freedom and rights-inalienable. It is an awesome task. There are enemies everywhere. Many have fallen in our history and sadly, many more will fall in the future.
This Memorial Day, remember the fallen. It’s okay to be sad, but try not to focus on remorse or sadness. Just remember the cost of your freedom and be very, very thankful.

“I thank you sir for your generous sympathy, but I die the death I always prayed for: the death of a soldier fighting for the rights of man.”


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