Last Monday we celebrated Veteran’s Day. I thought of the men in my family who have served in the Armed Forces– my father and my uncles in WWII, my cousins in Vietnam, and then male and female acquaintances in more recent wars. When I see the news coverage of war I wonder what it feels like to be so far from home, to know some of what you’ll face but not the gravity of the unknown.
When I was a girl, we had an upstairs room in our two-story farmhouse that we called the “Junk Room.” Inside that wood-ceiling-room were trunks that held Daddy and some of his brothers’ things from their years in the military. There were black-and-white photos, scratchy green Army blankets, small Bibles, letters, momentos they’d brought back from the countries where they’d served. I loved exploring those trunks and trying to imagine Daddy and my uncles as young men.
One picture of Daddy has intrigued me. In the small photograph, he’s standing on a snowy field in France. The back is carefully inscribed for his mother.
He mentioned being in England, and as I remember, he said, “the Limeys didn’t like the American soldiers taking their girlfriends.” One of his jobs had been guarding prisoners. He must have traveled to Belgium because we had a small pair of wooden shoes that sat on our bookcase. But I don’t remember Daddy telling us that he served in France.
The first time I felt I understood the picture of Daddy in that snowy field was last year when I read the book, The Nightingale by Kristen Hannah. It’s the story of two sisters who lived in a village near Paris at the time of the takeover by Nazi troops. Based on a true story, it’s a gripping account. The older sister is married and her husband is taken away to a concentration camp and she’s left to fend for her and her son. The younger sister boldly leads fallen Allied pilots to safety through an underground network. It’s difficult to read about the harsh conditions, the rationing of food, severe cold with not enough fuel or warm clothing, and most of all– the way they were treated by the German soldiers.
Late one night when I was reading, feeling like I could hardly keep on because I could barely stand one more bad thing happening to them, the story changed. A convoy of American soldiers arrived in the village where they freed them from the Germans. There were shouts of joy as the villagers passed the news to their neighbors. Overcome with joy myself, I remembered the picture of my father and said, “Daddy, you helped do that!” and tears streamed down my face with the first real connection to my father on that snowy field in France.
I wondered what he and his fellow soldiers would have been told about their mission. Did they have knowledge of how dire things had become for the French? I thought of Daddy’s courage– going forward in battle when fear could either paralyze you or cause you to retreat.
Every year around Veteran’s Day I hike with my cousin Danny. He’s like the big brother I always wanted. He tells me about his time in the Navy during the Vietnam War. To hear him recall what it was like to be on his ship during a typhoon is terrifying. Like Daddy, he had to summon up the courage he needed to do his job, to serve no matter what kind of conditions he faced.
Our past two hikes, we’ve taken the trail at Raven Rock State Park in central North Carolina that leads to an overlook of the Cape Fear River. Each time, we’ve met a veteran who took our picture. Afterward, the veteran hiker and Danny have talked about their military experience, the places they served and some of their memories. I stand to the side and witness their instant camaraderie.
I’ve never served in the military. But lately, some people have told me I’m brave for the way I’ve shared honestly about the tough time I’ve been going through. Is that bravery, I think, and compare it to the frightening situations soldiers face in combat, during dark lonely nights on foreign soil or navigating rough seas.
I guess there’s all kinds of bravery, with different things at stake. Perhaps they have in common being forced to face a situation and only having a choice about how to respond; you can either move forward, freeze with paralysis, or retreat.
While I have the courage to be vulnerable and write out the rawness of emotions, I don’t know if I’d ever have the courage to be a soldier. But perhaps if courage comes forth from the person we’ve become, to face what we’re called on to face– then we would do that taking one brave step forward at the time into whatever battlefield is ours.
May we have the courage we need to go forward.
How about you?
What kind of courage do you need at this time in your life?
How can you step forward onto your battlefield?