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Duty and Sacrifice

Friday, May 25, 2012

Memorial Day is not about death. It is about duty.

For the majority of Americans, Memorial Day is first and foremost a three-day weekend. Time to watch the Indianapolis 500 or a baseball game; time to open the swimming pool or have a picnic. The American flag will be appropriated to embellish ads for supermarkets, department stores, car dealers, and home improvement centers. Sales on everything from garden fertilizer to bedroom furniture will be accompanied by perfunctory messages urging us to “remember those who died for our country” as we clip our coupons and make our way to the mall. The nearest most folks will get to any graveyard, let alone a military cemetery, is a file photo in the local newspaper or obligatory footage on the television news.

It is perhaps inevitable that days set aside for even the most poignant purposes soon become mere “holidays.” The majority of people observe them as such, ignoring even their rote civic rituals. So it is with Memorial Day. Only a relatively small core of people–veterans, those still in the military, their relatives, a cadre of willing, obliged, or calculating politicians, and those citizens who retain a vestigial sense of tradition or patriotism–plan and participate in its observation.

It is a time to remember that who we are and what we are as a nation unique in history has depended on our sense of duty and its inevitable call to sacrifice.

At our cemetery on the hill above Ligonier, Pennsylvania, the observation has already begun. The folks from the veterans’ organizations have walked the rows and planted fresh American flags at the graves of their comrades. You can see hundreds of them fluttering in the sunlight or soaking limply in the rain, and there are thousands more, millions more, in cemeteries all across the United States. And in U.S. military cemeteries all over the world, the marshaled lines of simple stones stand as milestones marking the endless road of duty.

Memorial Day is not about death.

It is about duty.

And about the ultimate limit of duty–sacrifice.

It is a time to remember that who we are and what we are as a nation unique in history has depended on our sense of duty and its inevitable call to sacrifice.

And while the particular duty–the often perilous duty–of defending our country is accepted by the professional soldier, it has often been imposed on many others and carried out reluctantly and with trepidation. For most, this duty has meant the sacrifice of time–“the best years of our lives”—and of broken bodies. But for many others it has meant a sacrifice of life itself.

It is easy to forget what those gravestones and fluttering flags mean; easy to fly on past the cemetery, headed for the lake or ball game without giving it a thought. I’ve been no better than most about this. So in recent years, I have made it a point to remember. I drive up to the Ligonier Valley Cemetery on or around Memorial Day. I park on the narrow road below Section D and walk up the grassy, flag-bedecked slope to row 4. There at my feet are two small rectangles of granite. Incised on the larger, older one is the inscription:

ALVIN P. CAREY 1916 – 1944  S/Sgt 38 Inf 2nd Div

A few feet below this monument, a newer, smaller stone, emplaced years later, bears Staff Sergeant Carey’s name and the words CONGRESSIONAL MEDAL OF HONOR. I never look down at those gray rectangles set against the green grass without my mind rushing back to a hot day in July 1948 when, as a little boy, I sat in a church pew transfixed by something I had never seen before–a coffin covered completely by a fresh new American flag.

The nearest most folks will get to any graveyard, let alone a military cemetery, is a file photo in the local newspaper or obligatory footage on the television news.

Alvin Carey, quiet, bookish Alvin Carey, had come home. His body had been removed from a military grave in France and brought back to the green and forested valley he loved. I remember little about that day except my restlessness in the heat and the creaking sound of the floor and wooden pews in Laughlintown Christian Church as I stared at that flag-draped coffin and tried to imagine a soldier inside. It would be many, many years before I understood who he was and what he had done.

Today, the high school building in Ligonier is named after him and the road leading to it is called Carey School Road. But many people have no idea of the significance of the name. Alvin Carey was a handsome, brainy kid from the nearby village of Laughlintown. He was a voracious reader and by all reports a natural athlete, excelling in football and baseball. Going on to college in those Depression years after his high school graduation in 1935 was out of the question. So he worked at various jobs around Ligonier until, in January 1941, he joined the U.S. Army. By the end of that year, Pearl Harbor had been attacked and the United States was at war.

And so it was that on an August day in 1944, near the French village of Plougastel, Sgt. Carey, commanding a machine gun squad, found himself and his men pinned down by withering fire from German troops in and around a concrete pillbox high on a hill called 154. We will never know what went through Carey’s mind as machine gun bullets poured down on his exposed position 200 yards below that pillbox. He had placed his guns as best he could to return fire and tried to find what shelter he could for his men. He had done his duty.

But as the fire continued, Carey crawled quickly among his men, gathering up as many hand grenades as he could stuff in his pockets and belt. Then, armed with the grenades and his M1 carbine, he began crawling up that hill toward the distant pillbox.

Two hundred yards. That’s two football fields. Uphill. Under fire.

Killing one German infantryman who suddenly confronted him, Carey finally managed to reach a point just under the incessant muzzle flashes bursting from the narrow slit in the concrete face of the pillbox. He began throwing his grenades. He was trying to aim them directly into the slit where the German machine guns played back and forth. To do so he had to expose himself directly to the fire.

Whatever the combination of calculation and inchoate fear and anger within him, it is doubtful that the words duty or sacrifice or any thoughts connected with them crossed his mind.

Machine gun bullets tore into his body, knocking him back. He got up. With his life fast bleeding out of his shattered body, he got up. In the crisp, spare words of his Medal of Honor citation, “Undaunted, he gathered his strength and continued his grenade attack.” Carey, a pretty good baseball player, finally pitched one grenade through the slit straight into the pillbox, killing the crew and silencing the guns. Then he fell dead. Stunned by what they had just seen, the men of the 38th rushed up Hill 154 and ended German resistance in that area.

Medal of Honor citations are notably chaste in their narration, so we can only guess Carey’s state of mind when, with “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life,” he went beyond the edge of duty that long ago August day. Whatever the combination of calculation and inchoate fear and anger within him, it is doubtful that the words duty or sacrifice or any thoughts connected with them crossed his mind.

But the sense was there. The sense that this thing had to be done, and Carey was there to do it. And thus, on an obscure hill by a tiny village in Brittany, he fulfilled his duty and went beyond—to the ultimate sacrifice.

You may have your own personal touchstone to remember Memorial Day. A friend or relative lost in Afghanistan or Iraq, or on the high seas, or in the air. Perhaps someone who never returned from Korea or Vietnam, or the Marine barracks in Lebanon. Remember them. Give thanks for them. Consider, for a few moments, the cost of duty.

If no such personal connection exists, go and visit a cemetery. Go to those little flags fluttering by the stones. Pick out one, or just consider the hundreds, the thousands, the hundreds of thousands, that mark the long road of duty… and of sacrifice.

Ralph Kinney Bennett is a contributing writer to THE AMERICAN.

FURTHER READING: Bennett also writes “Remembering: With Pain, Anger, and Vigilance,” “This Astounding Enterprise,” and “Funny Thing about Christmas.” Thomas Donnelly, Gary J. Schmitt, and Mackenzie Eaglen contribute “Defending Defense: Sequestration Must be Stopped.” Mackenzie Eaglen says “Entitlement Programs, not Defense, the Source of Deficit Crisis.” John R. Bolton claims “The Choice is Clear: Romney Will Keep Us Safer.”

Image by Rob Green / Bergman Group

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