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Called to the Colors

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"God gives us memory so we can have roses in December."

- J. M. Barrie

There is a place you can go to feel the war in Iraq. You can't experience it living in everyday America. We are shopping and playing golf and watching soap operas and complaining about the price of gas but we don't feel this war. Those of us who don't have a friend or a child in uniform in Iraq have a hard time understanding the pain being caused by this conflict in our country and in Iraq.

This is essentially what confounded Austin, Texas advertising executive Chris Greta. As a man who came of age during Vietnam, Greta was baffled by how little the war touches the rest of us and he wanted to change that odd dynamic in our culture. He also was very interested in honoring the men and women who are serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. And he took an old-fashioned approach that has drawn an overwhelming response.

Greta created Hero Bracelets and launched the web site www.herobracelets.org They are similar to the POW-MIA bracelets worn by many of us during the Vietnam era. On each is a name and a hometown and other information about a member of the armed services. The bracelets are designed to commemorate either their lives lived and lost or to serve as a talisman for families and friends who are sending good thoughts to those deployed.

About 70,000 of the bracelets have been sold and Greta has sent a significant portion of the proceeds to the Fallen Heroes Fund and the Intrepid Foundation, which recently opened a rehabilitation center in San Antonio for servicemen and women. Although he is personally against the war, Greta wanted to make certain we do not forget those among us who are called to the colors, regardless of the politics.

"It was different during Vietnam," Greta explained. "There was a draft, so everyone coming of age had to be concerned and the draft crossed most of the socio-economic borders that separate us. It kept us all involved in the war and the politics. That's not happening now. That disconnect is a part of what drove me to create Hero Bracelets."

Something happened that Greta did not anticipate, however. His web site, designed to sell the bracelets, turned into a community for service members and their families and their friends. There is page upon page of stories about the fallen and surviving. They are maddeningly sad and intoxicatingly inspiring. And if you really care about what is happening in our country, you should read some of these letters and posts.

Read, for instance, the last letter written to Sgt. David Allen Ruhlen by his mother. She painstakingly describes his life and what he might have become as she slips between past and present tense in her narrative, clearly not yet accustomed to thinking of her boy as gone. She never once confronts his death in her loving note and only occasionally drops a phrase like "would have been" so that the reader has to surmise the mom who signed the letter is doing her best to make certain the boy she apparently raised alone has become a casualty.

There is also a note from a Major in Iraq explaining why he wears a Hero Bracelet bearing the name of a soldier he never knew.

"I wear it because in wearing it I honor his commitment, courage, and sacrifice in a place that sometimes does not remember it. I wear it because if the same fate should happen to me, I would hope someone would remember my name. I wear it because as Winston Churchill said 'We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give.' His life for our freedom, rest in peace Matthew D. Bush."

At www.herobracelets.org the living have been connected with the dead, the citizen with the soldier. Fern Smooke, who knows not a soul in the military, has found a hero in Sgt. Thomas E. Vandling, Jr. who died on January 7th of this year.

"Since wearing the bracelet I have had patients ask me about it. 'Do you know Thomas Vandling?' I reply, no but I do now. One little girl said, 'I go to school with his sister.' Another said, 'I know his family.' They told me about him and I've read articles from our newspapers to learn about him. I've even gotten to see a picture of him. He is my hero and I'm proud to wear his name."

Melody Pigg, whose Marine son is deployed in Iraq, has written a dozen long narratives to the web site so that those of us without children in the war can get a better sense of that experience and, perhaps, make more well-informed decisions about our choices. She writes with an aching clarity about what it was like to send her boy back into combat on his second tour of duty in Iraq.

"This deployment will be harder than the last since I'm aware of the 'near misses' that he had during his first deployment. I asked Marshall if he'd like me to be there when he leaves. His response was, 'Why would you want to be there on the saddest day of your life? You'll just see me get on a bus and ride off.' I just know that I love my son dearly and the thought of him being in harm's way is extremely difficult."

This Veterans' Day, spend some time with the memories and loved ones of our men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan. Read some stories at www.herobracelets.org Buy a bracelet and remember. Feel what their families feel. Know what this war in Iraq is really all about.

And then go find a place where you can cry. Cry for them and their unlived lives, the children they will never know and the holidays they will not share with their loved ones and the dreams they will never realize. Cry for a loss that cannot be measured. And when you have finished crying for them, cry for our beloved country.