Why Veterans' Day has new meaning for me
I was nervous.
It didn't really make a lot of sense for me to be nervous; after all, this was one of my best friends. A young man who'd stood by me through all sorts of things. Who'd put up with me as a roommate on two separate occasions. Who'd been my fraternity brother. Somebody I'd trusted with so much of my life. Despite all this, I was nervous.
I was nervous because I was unsure who I would be going to meet in Atlanta. I had heard stories about how going to war changes a person. I'd seen, with my own eyes, how young men from my own hometown had returned from Baghdad to our peaceful haven in the hills of East Tennessee only to wake up in a cold sweat, night after night, waiting for the lurking enemy to kill them in their bed.
Is that how he would be? Would the John* I would meet at his home in suburban Cobb County be the same friend that had left for Afghanistan only six months before?
I didn't know. And as I drove down the interstate, heading for the South's megalopolis, I thought about the ironies of modern warfare that made me question the reasons for my anxiety.
First of all, John had been able to keep internet access almost the entire time he was in Afghanistan, even though there were times he was truly in the middle of nowhere. Throughout the time he was there, we'd emailed back-and-forth, he'd sent pictures, he'd updated his Facebook profile, and we had even had (roughly) weekly contact through instant messenger.
All the contact that I'd had with him seemed to show that the John who was getting a two-week furlough back in the USA would be the same John that went to war in the first place.
But I also knew, as I approached the Atlanta bypass, that John's time in-country would be a huge, life-changing experience for him. I knew that it would shape and change him in ways that I had not been shaped and changed. He would have been forced to grow up immediately -- taking charge of the lives of 40 men -- while I struggled with issues like whether and how to study for my next exam.
In a lot of ways, I was worried that my conversations with John would be petty. All I had to talk to him about, from my life, were mind-numbing, law school social politics, office politics from my summer job, and the silly, everday things about which we normally talk to one another. I thought about asking John about his experiences in Afghanistan -- had he seen anything that had made him think twice about his enrolling in the Army? Was there something that occurred that made him proud to be a soldier? Was it scary? Was it boring?
But even as I tried to map out an outline of the conversation I would have with him, I realized that it would be pointless. John is my friend, I told myself, there's no reason to be freaking out like this. Of course, as sometimes happens in my head, I began a heated, internal debate: what if this is the last time you see him, my self worried.
That thought gave me pause. I'd regularly prayed for John while he'd been in Afghanistan, thankful to God that his superiors had seen fit to keep him mostly on a base with thousands of US and coalition troops. Then he'd been sent out into the field, with his platoon, to help other soldiers carry out their mission. My prayers had taken on a new fervancy, as I begged God to keep John safe.
Would John have discovered this new sense of mortality with which my vicarious imaginings of his sojourns through the Afghani countryside left me? Or would he perceive me as a civillian with romantic, wrong-headed notions about warfare that had nothing to do with what'd he'd actually experienced?
I think John could tell I'd been arguing with myself when I finally pulled up to his parents' home outside Atlanta. After a sincere embrace -- and believe me, John is not one for hugging -- he gave me a good-natured punch in the arm and asked me what I'd been worrying about.
We quickly settled into the wry banter that characterized our friendship, and he told me about books he'd read, people he'd met, and some of the insights into his own character and personality to which the lonely nights on the far-side of the world had led him.
As I spent time with John, I stopped worrying about what we'd talk about and instead relied upon the substance of our friendship to fill the time as we'd done so many times before.
The drive back to Alabama was much less pensive. I'd realized how amazing it was that our nation -- with history's most powerful military and most expansive reach -- was led by young men like John. I felt proud to be represented by someone like him.
And on this Veteran's Day, as John is joined by another of my fraternity brothers in fighting the War on Terror (this brother stationed in the heart of Iraq), I understand, probably for the first time, why we take this day so seriously.
Jesus said, in John 15, that "[g]reater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends." Jesus called his disciples "friends."
And when John got back on that plane after two weeks in America, placing himself back into harm's way, he did it for me, for his family, for his friends, for all of us -- and with our Lord, I affirm that "greater love has no one than this."
* "John" is used here as a pseduonym for the actual name of my friend who is serving with the United States Army, fighting in Afghanistan. Those who know me and "John" will doubtless be able to identify him through the context of the post, but I was unsure whether "John" would want his sacrifice highlighted in such a public way.