Honor and Humanity

As I drive around town in my hybrid Toyota Highlander, I must admit that I often picture my dad rolling about in his grave, shouting, “You bought a Jap car? Are you crazy? What did I fight for?” He never spoke of his time in the Pacific during World War II, and my knowledge is pieced together from old photos and snippets of conversation. I know that he was a pharmacist’s mate, a navy corpsman, apparently the only navy man a marine truly respects. I know he treated wounded soldiers in a hospital in Hawaii, that he saw severely damaged soldiers after the battle at Iwo Jima. Signatures of marines he treated grace an old Leatherneck magazine that sits mouldering on a book shelf in my house. A high school chum of my dad’s once credited my dad with saving his life after he was wounded at Iwo Jima. My dad was loving and profound and volatile. There was always something bubbling underneath. I think that his experiences in the war were only part of that angst, and I always wanted to know what made him tick.

Recently, a friend reminded me of the anniversary of the flag raising on Iwo Jima which had prompted the now ultrafamous photo. His reminder sent me back to my bibliophile book shelf, and I read once again James Bradley’s Flags of Our Fathers. Some of the content of that book helps me understand my father, and all soldiers, better. Some years back, I was privileged to attend an Iwo Jim reunion with a wonderful gentleman from our church, Austin Kennedy, who had fought in that great battle. The event took place at Camp Pendleton, and Mr. Bradley was a guest. I met him and had my book signed, and even though I didn’t know this man at all, I felt some kinship with him. His book should be read by all Americans who want better to understand “the greatest generation”. I did not come away from the book with a glorified view of war or our country or even our soldiers. I came away from it with a better understanding of people like my dad, people who had been through trauma and just wanted to get on with living their lives.

After rereading Flags of Our Fathers, I went back through From Baghdad With Love, Jay Kopelman’s story of Lava, the dog he brought back to the United Stated from Iraq. He is another author I was privilieged to meet and have sign his book. Completely different books — same intensity. The first was a third-person retelling, the second a first-person account. Both offered insight into the way war changes people, forever alters who they are and how they function in society.

When I was teaching an ethnically diverse class of junior high school students, we often discussed our ancestry, the resilience of those who came before us, the amazing stories of how we got to be where we are. My classroom over the years contained the descendants of humans who survived the Killing Fields of Cambodia, the Armenian Holocaust, the terrors of war in Vietnam, harrowing escapes from Cuba and other communist nations, and internment in camps on U.S. soil. One moment that stood out to me was when we discovered that my father had fought against my student’s grandfather in the Pacific during World War II. Yet, here we were, student and teacher, companionable and safe.

I’m sure the authors of these books would be happy to know that I gained from them a deeper respect and admiration for the U.S. military. They may not, however, agree with something else I found in their books. What I found is that, no matter how cruel humans are to other humans, God is still in control. God still grants moments of joy even in the midst of sorrow and destruction. He heals wounds, although those wounds still show scars. And he has created amazingly strong and honorable people who give of themselves to protect others. There is honor in humanity.

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