As a boy in Erie, Illinois, each year on Memorial Day, most of the 1,300 residents of my hometown turned out for the parade that began in the triangle of businesses that lined the center of the village. They watched or marched as the procession of veterans, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Knights of Columbus and others moved spritely down the blacktop street to enter the village cemetery lined by tall pine trees.
There, speeches were made, prayers were offered, a 21-gun salute boomed over the adjoining cornfield and the mournful sound of "Taps" echoed off headstones. And then all walked somberly home.
As a kid in the 1950's, I was ever drawn to a square plot in the village cemetery that was cordoned off by a chain strung through metal posts. There, standing sentry, were about two dozen stark white crosses, bearing the names of town residents who had made the ultimate sacrifice in World War II.
One of those crosses read: "M Possley."
At the time, it felt strange to see my name on that cross. I often wondered about the man for whom I was named and whom I never met. Maurice, my father's eldest brother, was a member of the crew of the "Temptation," a B-24 shot down in the Pacific on Sept. 1, 1944. His body -- like those of the entire crew -- was never recovered.
I tried to imagine what he was like as a boy growing up in Erie himself, how he came to be a man, a brother, a son. When I questioned my dad -- who along with two other brothers, Francis and Leroy, also served in armed forces during World War II -- he told me that "Mort," as his family called him, had a ready smile, was generous, led by example, and was a man of deep faith. I also learned that he was a man of great courage. But I simply could not comprehend at that tender age what his death meant or how there were so many more children such as me for whom the friendly ghosts of fallen loved ones loomed large.
Over the years, I have come to realize my uncle was just one of many thousands and thousands of such brave men and women who willingly made the ultimate sacrifice for their country, but even today, I do not know that I can fully appreciate their heroic selflessness, as well as the unfathomable losses suffered by their families and friends. The price of liberty cannot be measured solely in blood and grief.
Such sacrifices continued to be made across the globe in such places such as Korea, Vietnam, Somalia and most recently in Afghanistan and Iraq, to name but a few. And as I read the notices in the newspapers about the latest casualties in the "War on Terror," I cannot help but wonder about the children who someday will stand before a cross or memorial, as I did, and wonder.
Two years ago, after moving from Chicago to Laguna Beach, California, I attended my first Sunday service at Little Church by the Sea where the preacher spoke of duty and sacrifice. When he invoked the memory of a dear family friend -- Mark Metherell, a former Navy SEAL who was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2008 -- I wept, thinking of his wife, daughter, sisters, parents and best friend and their visits to Mark's grave at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in Point Loma, California.
I was reminded of a verse from the Gospel of St. John in Chapter 15: "Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends."
Not long after that first Sunday at Little Church, I began collaborating with Trinity Evangelical Divinity School professor John Woodbridge on a book about the extraordinary life of Ira "Teen" Palm, a soldier in World War II who went behind enemy lines in an attempt to capture Adolf Hitler in Munich a few days before the psychotic mastermind's death by suicide on April 30, 1945. Poring over Palm's letters, I was struck by his strong yet humble Christian faith that girded his unwavering belief in the righteousness of the fight to end Hitler's reign of terror and genocide.
Sifting through Palm's papers, I found that he had a copy of a 1954 speech given by General Charles L. Bolte, U.S. Army Vice Chief of Staff during which he said, "We should never forget that our finest weapons are only as good as the heart of the man that uses them."
With the recent news of the death of Osama bin Laden, we praise the hearts of the courageous team of Navy SEALs that pulled off the dangerous mission. At the same time, my heart aches for the Metherell family, whose son, brother, husband and father -- a man of great courage and even greater faith -- perished now three years ago on the front lines of a worldwide battle to bring bin Laden's campaign of murderous terror to a close.
Any yet my sorrow is tempered by the pride and humility I feel when I look at the noble commitments of so many, including my eldest son, a U.S. Army surgeon, and three of my nephews, who serve proudly in the U.S. Navy. Like Teen Palm, in the unselfish orientation of their hearts and wills, these young men -- and thousands of other men and women like them -- represent America's highest and best ideals.
As our country pauses this Memorial Day to honor and remember those who died to protect us and others from tyranny, may we reflect not only upon the hearts of those men and women who paid for our freedoms with their lives, but also upon the brave, generous souls in the Armed Forces who continue day in and day out to serve the cause of freedom by putting themselves in harm's way. They are our true north.
For as President Obama wisely reminded us, when speaking of his predecessor, the great American hero Abraham Lincoln, "When it came time to confront the greatest moral challenge this nation has ever faced, Lincoln did not flinch. He did not equivocate or duck or pass the challenge on to future generations. He did not demonize the fathers and sons who did battle on the other side, nor seek to diminish the terrible costs of his war. ... he kept his moral compass pointed firm and true."