On the Saturday night before Memorial Day, the cost of the war on terrorism were wearing red T-shirts. They were in a small ballroom on the second floor of the Crystal City Doubletree Hotel in Northern Virginia, within sight of the Pentagon.
There were about 250 of them. Children of men and women who had been killed in the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan and in training. They were maybe from age five to fifteen. They were handsome. They were pretty. They were cute. They had haunted eyes, some of them, and some of them cried. One family had five kids, and the oldest, a beautiful 15-year-old girl, could not stop crying.
They were being watched over by about thirty mentors, who were good-looking men and women from the Air Force, Navy, Marines, and Army Honor Guard at Arlington National Cemetery. They serve as mentors and guides for the kids as the kids mourn their loss.
The kids had just gotten back from a field trip and were in a giddy, but still haunted mood, as they ate pizza. I spoke to them, hugged them, smeared my tears away as I could. I told them how pretty they were if they were girls and how brave and handsome they looked if they were boys.
A spectacularly cute little red-headed girl named Dawn slithered around me and pretended to be a dog to be patted. Or is it petted?
I told the kids their parents had died to save this country, to give kids in Iraq and Afghanistan the chance to choose their lives and to have the freedoms we take for granted. I told them there were not enough words in the English language to thank them enough for what they had done. For the sacrifice they had made. I told them their fathers and mothers had died doing God’s work.
Then I signed autographs, mostly on the kids’ T- shirts for about an hour.
I WISH I WERE ELOQUENT enough to tell you how brave these kids were and what a price they are paying. To lose a father while the rest of us complain about taxes and the stock market and the price of real estate. Quite a sight. Quite a concept.
How can we possibly repay them? How conceivably? There is nothing we can do. But be grateful and keep them in our hearts forever.
I walked with my friend Marina Malenic, ace in WMD, to a far larger ballroom, where the widows, mothers and fathers, fiancees, widowers maybe, of the men and women who were killed were gathered.
I sat with the head of the great organization, Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, Bonnie Carroll, who conceived of TAPS when her AF general husband was killed in training in Alaska many years ago. Maybe it was 1998. She is a pretty, extremely smart woman, with a heart as big as a Cadillac. We sat also with several women who had lost their husbands. They were all brave, all sharing their experience, strength, and hope with each other. One woman next to me said I did not need to feel sorry for her on the death of her husband in the Mosul bombing. “I got to live with him for 22 years,” she said. “I was blessed.”
Everyone there wore a button with a photo of the man who had died. The men looked impossibly healthy, fit, optimistic. They could not possibly be dead, and yet they were.
Several wives spoke of their last talks with their husbands, about what it was like when the Chaplain came up the driveway. Some read letters from their husbands talking about how happy they were to be helping the Iraqi children.
Bonnie spoke, perhaps the most moving speech I have ever heard in person, a difficult act to follow. She used to work with Reagan and maybe that explains her amazing ability to get in touch with truth.
Then I spoke and gave a little talk about how we could live without the stock market, could get on without Hollywood or new cars, but could not last a week without our armed forces and the armed forces could not last a week without the military family. “To most,” I said, “the war on terrorism is an abstraction. But there is blood all over this room.”
They gave me one standing ovation after another and I left the stage dizzy with gratitude. These women — overwhelmingly women — are paying a fearful price so the rest of us can get on with our daily selfishness and greed without hindrance.
So that the witches of Beverly Hills and Fifth Avenue can go on with their shopping, these women lost their husbands. Mothers and fathers were there, too. One came up to me, a crusty couple, husband a Marine, and showed me a dollar bill from his late son’s wallet when the son was killed in Iraq. The edges were covered in blood.
HOW CAN WE THANK these families? How can we possibly praise enough the sacrifice they and their husbands have made? How can it ever be enough?
Yet, they have something the rest of us rarely have: meaning. They know why God put them on earth, why they live and suffer. They never doubt their worth.
Bonnie drove Marina and me back to The Watergate. I felt as if I had been with the finest people on earth that night, the ones in God’s image.
Mostly, I see the dregs of human selfishness. When I am around the military — the Honor Guard, the families, the kids, the parents, the ones who are the thin line between life and death for freedom, the ones who make our lives worth living, I have hope for the human spirit. The best of the human spirit is alive and well inside those red T-shirts.