There is a place near my home — in a rural county in middle Tennessee — that is especially beautiful. A dirt path leads off from the main road, through a hay field, up to an old barn nestled just at the base of a small hill. It’s like a scene from a painting. For some reason, every time I drive past (which is often), I’m struck by a sense of gratitude — for my family, for the church and school community that so enriches our lives, for the simple pleasures of peace at home — the meals with friends, the long treks to volleyball tournaments, and the joy of watching my kids struggle to train a new puppy. I’m grateful because I understand that there is nothing that I did to truly “deserve” the life I’ve been given.
For years, I tried to deserve it — to convince myself that if only I was a good enough citizen, striving to be a good husband and father, working in my community to love and support those less fortunate, and using my law degree to defend liberty, then I could one day reflect on my life with satisfaction — with a sense that I’d given more than I’d taken.
Then I went to war and learned of debts that can’t ever be repaid. It’s one thing to read in the history books of barely trained militia staring down British regulars from the top of Breed’s Hill, or of the horrible slaughter on Burnside’s Bridge at Antietam, or to watch movie depictions of Omaha Beach or even combat footage from Fallujah. It’s another thing entirely to stand in silent attention as a friend — a brother you’d just talked to hours before — is loaded onto a Blackhawk helicopter to begin his “hero flight” home. It’s another thing entirely to embrace a grieving father next to the flag-draped casket of his son, another brother you knew and loved.
Honor sacrifice by tending to the tree of liberty, by building something in your own turn that is worth defending.
That’s when I learned — to paraphrase a character in a recent summer movie — that there’s “red in my ledger,” red that I can never turn to black. Christians are familiar with this concept. The blood of Christ grants a gift of eternal life that we cannot possibly earn. Here at home the blood of our warriors — spilled for liberty — has granted us a nation greater than we deserve. Yes, millions of Americans have worked for more than two centuries to build the families, the businesses, and the civic institutions that make the America we live in today, but the predicate for all those actions is a combination of peace and freedom purchased at the highest price.
To say that we can’t repay our debt to these warriors is not to say that we shouldn’t be good stewards of the fruits of their sacrifice. Indeed, the knowledge that all of our lives and opportunities are to some degree blood-bought should sanctify them for even our most secular citizens. Honor sacrifice by tending to the tree of liberty, by building something in your own turn that is worth defending.
And by remembering. Remember that living among us are men and women who do not have red ledgers. Theirs are thoroughly black. You can sometimes spot them — they live in the homes with the gold-star flag hanging in the window, they wear the gold-star pin, and you can find their sons or daughters by spotting a small American flag next to an otherwise nondescript gravestone.
The gold-star family members I know don’t ask for much. After all, what can you possibly give them? But they do ask that you remember. And so I do. From Operation Iraqi Freedom, 2007–08, 2nd Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, I remember: Major Andrew Olmstead, Captain Thomas Casey, Sergeant Corey Spates, Captain Torre Mallard, Sergeant Phillip Anderson, Specialist Donald Burkett, Mr. Albert Haroutounian, Sergeant Gregory Unruh, Specialist Matthew Morris, Captain Ulises Burgos, Specialist Andre Mitchell, and Captain Michael Medders.
May God grant you everlasting rest. And may God comfort your families with the knowledge that you lived and died serving others. And may we never forget.
— David French is an attorney, a staff writer at National Review, and a veteran of the Iraq War.