By Mike Monson, Col. USAF (Retired)
It was hot, of course, as late summer in Kandahar, Afghanistan is known to be. This sprawling airbase on the edge of the red desert was a world away from Pokegama Lake in northern Minnesota, where I had left 15 years earlier to join the Air Force. Here, I had somehow become used to daily high temps that flirted with 120 degrees, but there were some things that I could never get used to, things that would change my perspective on Memorial Day and freedom forever.
I was in the middle of a project but the email said to be in place by 1800 hours...so we closed up shop, dusted off and straightened our uniforms, and started walking to the ramp ceremony. We stood shoulder to shoulder--Americans, Canadians, Brits and a few other nationalities--some in formation, others just finding a spot where they could on the flight line. People fidgeted and talked quietly, lining up on both sides of an imaginary road running straight back from the hulking C-17 cargo jet.
Were we waiting for the arrival of a USO celebrity guest? The Commanding General? A distinguished visitor from Washington D.C.? No, someone much more important.
An eerie calm crept over the normally bustling tarmac as the Humvee slowly came into view and stopped. Eight U.S. soldiers marched to the back of the truck to remove its contents, an American flag-draped casket. The uniformed pallbearers lifted their fallen comrade out of the make-shift hearse and began their solemn march toward the back of the awaiting C-17. Bagpipes rang out, playing "Amazing Grace."
As the procession approached my spot in line I came to attention and rendered my salute along with those to my left and to my right. And, like dominos in slow motion, we "ordered" our arms after they passed. When the hero was secured, the plane's only cargo, the Chaplain said a prayer. A bugler played "Taps", the cargo door closed, and we slowly departed, in silence.
I didn't know him personally, this soldier who had paid the ultimate price in the name of freedom and all of the values we uphold as Americans. But I know what he was like. He was like many before him who served, not wanting to die for their country...but willing to, if needed. He was like my great uncle and Grand Rapids native, Monell Monson Sr. At age 33 with a wife and two kids, he answered the call and enlisted in the Navy in January, 1944... giving his life only 11 months later during a fierce air-sea battle aboard the U.S.S. Mugford near the Philippines.
These are the true heroes I think about, especially on Memorial Day. It is also something--a sense of respect, honor, duty--that I've tried to pass on to my two teenaged sons. It's tough though, today, amid the competition for their attention from Snapchat, Clash of Clans, Xbox and the like. So, I made it a routine, on every Memorial Day, that we would visit a veteran's cemetery or walk the memorials on the D.C. mall. Would they prefer to be at the neighborhood BBQ, boating on the lake, or hanging with friends on their day off from school? Sure, but deep down they know it is the right thing to do, to "go with dad to see Arlington National Cemetery...again."
My boys have probably been exposed to more patriotic and military events than most, having grown up as Air Force "Brats" on or near military installations around the world. Living in the Washington D.C. metro area more recently has afforded us many opportunities to relive history in our minds, and to remember those who helped make America a great country to call "home."
One of our favorite memorials to visit is the Korean War Memorial, especially at night. The 19 stainless steel statues make you feel like you are right there in the rice patties with them, defending the 38<sup>th</sup> parallel and fighting for freedom. It is definitely awe-inspiring, but the part I like best is a granite wall by the Pool of Remembrance with a simple inscription: "Freedom Is Not Free." It isn't free, nor is it guaranteed. I've traveled to many countries whose citizens are not free to speak their mind, to live how they want to live, or to become who they want to be. The value of freedom must be understood, it must be appreciated, it must be earned, and it must be protected by each generation