|US Army Photo
The old soldier leaned heavily on his cane. He grew slightly misty eyed as he looked down at the gravestone sitting in the sunshine just outside the nation’s capital. He had known the man buried there, had served with him in two wars. Had held him as he died on a snowy hilltop in Korea.
He knew his own time was coming, and soon. He was nearly a hundred years old, he carried shrapnel from a Chinese grenade in one hip and had been scarred badly on his right leg when a friendly aircraft had dropped its load of napalm an instant too soon. All of his friends were dead. Just that morning he had attended the funeral of his great-grandson, killed in action in yet another foreign war for which he could see no good reason.
Perhaps he had grown cynical over the years, who could blame him? He had killed, he had seen the men serving in his unit be killed, or worse, maimed so that the rest of their lives were dogged by pain and regret.
He had been lucky, neither German, North Korean, Chinese, nor North Vietnamese bullets and grenades had injured him to the point that he couldn’t function. Sure, he chuckled to himself, he could tell when it was going to rain well before most folks. Some of that was the damage his body had had inflicted upon it in three wars. Some of it was, he chuckled again, simply the irony of making it to old age.
Many of the men, and now women, that he knew hadn’t been so lucky. He’d also lost a son and a great-grandson to the wars which the politicians had said were “necessary.” Two of his grandsons, and one granddaughter, had seen the elephant. They didn’t talk about those things with their spouses or their friends. But they did talk with their Grandpa, usually after a bad day or after some new outrage on the news.
The old soldier was beginning to wonder what had happened to the country he had spent most of his adult life fighting for. Had the suffering and all the death been worth it? He was no longer sure.
But as his youngest great-grandson had said that morning at the funeral of his brother, “We can’t quit Grandpa, otherwise all this has been for nothing.”
Young Stephen had shaken his head, then wiped a tear from his cheek as he had said that, then he’d straightened his uniform, he was a midshipman at the Naval Academy of all things, and returned to rigid attention as Taps was played.
The old soldier sighed, saluted the grave of his oldest friend, then turned to limp down the hill to where his family awaited him. It all had to mean something, didn’t it?
He was no longer sure. But he and his family served and had always served, he still felt that they lived in the best country on Earth, regardless of which crop of politicians were in charge. Something had to change, he knew that, but he doubted that he would live to see that change.
As his grandson, father of the man they had just buried, held the car door for him, the old soldier looked back up the hillside one more time. He knew that his next visit to this place would be in a casket, drawn by horses, the mournful thump of the drums taking him to his final rest. He would be in fine company here.
He regretted nothing.