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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 62 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

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Sunday, July 24, 2011

"Earn This!"*

Copyright ©2011 by Ralph Couey

*Johnstown, PA Tribune-Democrat
August 14, 2011
as "We must earn heroes' sacrifice"
I recently spent a weekend in New Orleans attending the reunion for my first ship, USS Ouellet.  We had a great time reminiscing and laughing at those memories.  We talked about deployments, the thousand incidents great and small that make for lasting memories.  We spoke of shipmates we had served with, officers we had served under, and ports we had visited.  It was a fine way to recall that in our most vulnerable years, we had done something worthwhile.  The friendships we had established decades before were revived as easily as sliding into an old comfortable pair of blue jeans.

In high spirits, we walked the narrow streets of the French Quarter in the same way we had done in exotic places like Hong Kong, Singapore, Manila, Tokyo, Karachi, Mombasa, and Bangkok, all of us falling into that curious rolling gate that marks a landed sailor.  On our heads we proudly wore those blue ballcaps with the ship’s name emblazoned on the front, and once again, we were shipmates.

In recent years, it’s become common for people to thank veterans for their service.  Having grown up during the Vietnam era, this is something I’m grateful to see.  A few times over the weekend, I was stopped by folks who, seeing my ballcap, offered a handshake and their thanks.

My friends might react in disbelief at the idea that I’d ever be at a loss for words.  But in these situations, I really don’t know what to say.  I am grateful, to be sure; but also a little embarrassed by the attention, mainly because like all of us who have worn the uniform, we don’t think of ourselves as being worthy of such things.  We’re not the heroes.  

The heroes never came home.
There is, however, deep inside something I wish I could say.

At the end of the movie “Saving Private Ryan,” Captain Miller lays dying on a bridge.  With him is the young man he and his men died to bring home, the last living son of a family of heroes.  In his last moments, the Captain reaches out to the young soldier and says, “James, earn this!”

Sacrifices are never easy even when they don’t involve that “last full measure of devotion.”  What makes sacrifice bearable is knowing that it made a difference; that it wasn’t made in vain.

Although many won’t admit it, everyone in America has the freedom to determine their own destiny.  There are far too many rags-to-riches stories to claim otherwise.  The only limits are the choices we make, those choices that form the walls that imprison us from the realization of our potential.  

Taking education seriously, turning one’s back on substance use whether recreational or more serious.  Purposefully taking the high road of ethics, morality, and behavior.  Above all, claiming ownership for our own mistakes, rather than blaming everyone and everything else.  These are just a few.

These choices are never easy.  But good choices will open doors behind which lie the golden opportunities that make a great life.  On the other hand, taking the easy road of least resistance and surrender will effectively imprison you behind a steel web of circumstance for which you are solely responsible.

“Freedom isn’t free” is a statement that goes beyond a political or patriotic aphorism.  It is a powerful reality, backed by the blood of hundreds of thousands.  If you truly want to thank a veteran, the best way is through the example of the life you lead.  Demonstrate that you made good choices and took advantage of the freedoms you were provided.  Choose to lead a good life.

At the end of “Private Ryan,” the former private, now an aging man kneels before the grave of Captain Miller and talks about how he thought every day about what he had said on that bridge; that he tried to live his live in such a way that he earned what those soldiers had done for him.

That’s a conversation we all need to have.  Can we say that we’ve lived a life that fulfilled the promise they made to us?  Can we truly tell them that what we’ve done to their country, that flag and those freedoms has honored the sacrifice of their lives?

Whatever choices you make, don’t do it for me or any other living veteran.  Instead, close your eyes and listen to the whispered voices of the heroes who didn’t come home, the ones who died for your freedom.

Heed their heart-felt plea:

Earn This!”
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