The headlines — that all major military operations in Iraq are over — mirror our son’s most recent e-mail, saying that he will shortly know his next assignment, or possibly whether he will be coming home. His mother and I are hoping against hope that he will be back in East Lansing for his birthday on May 28. We are planning on throwing a party for him, although we know better than to count on it.
In the meantime, Ian is sorting through what to box up and send back home. High on the list is his Kevlar vest. How Ian came into this vest (and others for his buddies in the Michigan Air National Guard) is a wonderful story that shows the patriotism and support people back home have given our men and women in uniform.
Before deploying to Kuwait, Ian was informally advised to get a bulletproof vest to wear on the flight line, in case sniper fire came in from the perimeter of the base. The Air Force provides Kevlar vests under certain circumstances, but our son and his comrades wanted round-the-clock protection. Ian visited a police outfitter here in town and surfed the Internet, only to discover that a properly fitted vest can cost more than $600.
So Ian’s mother suggested that he call up East Lansing’s police chief, Louis Muhn, and ask if he had any leads on obtaining a less expensive vest. Chief Muhn, it turns out, thought of an even better idea. The East Lansing Police Department had 18 used vests, and Chief Muhn decided to donate them to Ian and his guard unit. The crew chiefs were grateful for this generous gesture — and so were the families of those serving in Gulf War II. The first time our son tried on his vest, his mother and I were in the kitchen. We both felt a lump in our throat as we looked at Ian standing there, cinching up his new vest with the initials “ELPD” on the back. It was a concrete gesture of the support our men and women in the theater have received from the home front; a powerful reminder of what makes our nation great. Thank you, Chief Muhn.
A couple of days ago, Ian sent this e-mail to family and friends. Clearly he was grappling with his experiences, pondering the meaning of Operation Iraqi Freedom in his life and in the life of our nation.
You’ve all seen it on the news. Grateful Iraqis kissing Marines. Shouts of freedom as statues of the Butcher of Baghdad come tumbling down. I am very proud of what this Band of Brothers has done. Our mission has been one of hope. We are liberating a nation from fear and despair. We are bringing freedom and justice to the oppressed. With God before us, behind us, beside us, and within us, we have done what is right. And I have been blessed to be a part of it.
During my time here, I have experienced strong emotions, some of which have surprised me. But what I believe I will remember most are the camaraderie and dedication of our unit, and the love of my family and friends….
“Done what is right.” “Blessed to be a part of it.” “Love of my family and friends.” The words lingered in my mind. How extraordinary, I thought, that a 19-year-old airman would feel this way about serving in a war that interrupted his comfortable life. How extraordinary that he would so soon have the perspective to put such feelings into words. No doubt about it, this war will be the defining event in Ian’s life, the “engendering experience,” as historians like to say. I think back to the rite-of-passage novels that young men of previous generations have penned — Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage, Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. I know the works academically, but I don’t fool myself: The experiences captured by these authors are ones that I will never fully understand. Having been too young to serve in Vietnam, and too old to serve in Gulf War I, I’ve not had the experiences that even my 19-year-old son has. I have not feared death the way he has. I have not sacrificed so.
Now that Gulf War II is winding down, my wife and I find ourselves reflecting on the remarkable e-mails Ian sent back home. These past four weeks we have learned much about his character and also about the character of our nation.
We have learned that a 19-year-old boy can become a man in a few weeks; that in the crucible of war he becomes part of a “band of brothers”; that he helps form a community of sacrifice that habituates him to putting others first. These heroes are not part of any “me generation” — they are fighting for each other. It is a beautiful thing.
We have learned that the willingness to fight for one’s country is the ultimate “community service” — the community service that makes all other forms of service possible.
We have learned that the men and women who serve in the all-volunteer military are even better than their reputation, that they have received outstanding training and enjoy stellar leadership. Americans should all be proud of those who are willing to leave the creature comforts we take for granted, travel to a hostile environment, and risk their lives to fight for a better world. These citizen soldiers make us proud.
We have learned that America is still a strong, a good country, and not as hopelessly decadent as repeated exposure to Hollywood might lead one to believe. Indeed, there is not enough crow on all the West Coast for glitterati-liberals to eat.
Reading literally hundreds of responses to Ian’s e-mails from around the country, my wife and I have learned that ordinary Americans are not “average.” They are remarkable. They are strong. They are compassionate. They are courageous. They know right from wrong. They deserve more respect than the elites in the universities, media, and Hollywood give them. My family will probably never meet even a fraction of the good people who have written us. But Ian has benefited greatly from their prayers and expressions of support. The patriotism and heart-rending stories they have shared with our family will be a source of inspiration for the rest of our lives.
What a great country we Americans live in. God bless our fallen heroes. God bless our men and women in uniform. God bless these United States of America.
— Gleaves Whitney is editing a book of wartime speeches by American presidents, to be published later this year by Rowman & Littlefield. This is the ninth in a series of reports about his 19-year-old son Ian, who is serving in Kuwait with the Michigan Air National Guard.