Kentucky's famous Trappist monk Thomas Merton said it best: "Nothing is lost by peace, yet everything may be lost by war."
Keeping count "by the numbers"(army parlance) tells us that more than 2000 of our young warriors have died for their country in this war. But these dead should be more than statistics. It galls me that they are not being given the honor and recognition they deserve. Why not? We do it for presidents -- President Reagan, for instance-- a full week of mourning and Old Glory at half-staff for 30 days. Even now, the flag should be flying at half-mast every day, for we are losing far too many brave men and women.
Yet we see nothing and hear little of our dead being brought home in flag-draped coffins. Is it a deliberate attempt by this administration to promulgate the old saying "out of sight, out of mind?" If it is, it won't work, for there are those of us who still grieve for our loved ones lost many years ago, in other wars:
Words cannot express the desolation of that bleak Kentucky winter of 1944 when the message came -- a telegram regretting to inform my parents that their eldest son had died of wounds received in action. He died near Metz, France with Patton's army. The grandstanding general (who reminds me so much of our present Commander-in-Chief!) had outrun his supply and support lines in his rush to glory. My brother bled to death before medics could reach him.
Later, a special packet arrived: a gilded Purple Heart medal and a letter of condolence from President Roosevelt. My mother could not, would not, accept his death, even when his personal possessions came home in a box. She fondled his wallet, empty except for a few faded photographs of the family. There was his pocket comb with two teeth missing and a worn handkerchief. She hugged to her breast all these personal things he had last touched, some of them still encrusted with the mud from a far away field in France where he had fallen.
Letters came, one from a Catholic chaplain to my Protestant mother advising her that he had been with her son at the end. His company commander wrote that Staff Sgt. William Franklin Preston had been one of his best soldiers, a credit to his family and to the nation.
She put away the treasured medal and letters in a small cedar box, symbolically burying her great loss. But she was inconsolable. Her 21 year old son dead -- and she hadn't seen him since he was 16 -- the day he quit shucking corn in the field and hitchhiked to Lexington to join the army. But what choices did a poor farm boy have during the hard, lean years of the Great Depression? The army had good food, clothing, and $21 a month to offer -- which was a step up from nothing.
The memory of my mother's grieving face that cold Kentucky winter haunts me still. Although my sisters and I had quit our jobs housekeeping for "rich" people in Cincinnati to come home to help strip the tobacco crop, our best efforts in assuaging her grief failed. From the stripping room in the barn we could hear her keening, heartbroken wailing. We looked at each other, stopped stripping the leaves from the tobacco stalks, waiting, knowing it wouildn't be long before she'd be there at the door, swollen-eyed and desperate, seeking a solace none of us could give.
My dad, his own eyes brimming, stopped work to hold her. We stood silent, stricken, there at the stripping bench, our "hands' of tobacco still untied, each of us sharing their hurt, yet lost in our own private grief: Dear Brother, 21 is so young to die! Much too young. You hadn't begun to live.
My mind wanders: Long rows of tobacco stretching endlessly under the hot sun -- a gaggle of ragged children with goose-neck hoes chopping Johnson grass and thistles out of the weedy tobacco rows -- daydreaming, talking about what we would do when we got "rich." What regret, Bill, now that you would never get married, have the daughter you were going to name "Alice"; never get to live in a big, fine house with a bathroom; never get all the graham crackers and peanut butter you could eat. Not that you didn't enjoy our daily fare -- pinto beans, fried potatoes and cornbread, but that fancy food you'd had once at a neighbor's house fired your imagination.
A wistful bunch of kids, leaning on our hoes, wishing and wanting. You wanted books to read -- not the kid stuff in the school library, but about the Graf Zeppelin and the China Clipper, and about G-8 and his Battle Aces. You wanted to play basketball, but you had no athletic shoes to wear, and that's really why you quit high school. The coach ran you off the floor because you couldn't afford a pair of proper shoes. Six-feet two inches at age 16, quick and smart, you would have made a fine basketball player. You traded your old shotgun (you'd painted the barrel blue) for a guitar, and you were getting pretty good on it before you left. You had such a good baritone voice, and sang "Man of Constant Sorrow" and "Little Maggie" as good as Bill Monroe or Ralph Stanley. You were just a boy, the apple of your mother's eye, when you stood in the recruiting office and swore to defend your country against all enemies. Bless your dear heart! You did that, did it well, and died in the process.
I think of my brother, William Franklin Preston, 10th Infantry Division (Camp McCoy, Iceland, Ireland, and D-ay) so often. He would be today 82 years old. Even now, so many years later. I have one consolation that siblings today don't have: He fought in probably the one war that needed fighting -- World War II, a war that resembles Bush's War in Iraq not one whit!
Mary Lou Brown Byrd is a regular columnist for the Jessamine Journal in Nicholasville, Kentucky. Her "15 minutes" came as editor of the Plains Georgia Monitor during Jimmy Carter's presidency. In her family of 12 chlidren, seven were in the army, including Mary Lou as a WAC (Women's Army Corps) veteran. Email Mary Byrd at: firstname.lastname@example.org.