Sacrifice and love of country are still with us

The Roman philosopher Cicero tells us a lot about duty. We have duty to God, parents, family, children and to community, but the first duty should be to country. It is a concept not heard much today; to many, duty means only a task you must perform. They do not see the sacrifice inherent in the call, nor the value to the nation.

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the Islamic terrorist attack on the World Trade Center towers. The buildings were destroyed, but our love of country was enhanced. It seemed Americans were united, setting aside politics, advantage and intrigue, leaving only an appreciation of sacrifice.

Now, 20 years later, at the end of August, America lost 13 of its brave soldiers who stood guard at the Kabul, Afghanistan, airport and gave their last efforts to help those who would flee oppression and find new freedom elsewhere. As Lincoln would say, they did not die in vain, as they gave freedom to so many others. Surely, there is a special place in Heaven for soldiers such as these.

They came from different walks of life in different service branches. Eleven were Marines, one was a Navy corpsman, one was United States Army. Two were young Marine women in their 20s, enlisted personnel like their male counterparts, putting their lives at risk to save others.

Like all of us, they had dreams, hopes for the future. A photo of one of these women shows her holding an Afghan baby who presumably made it onto a departing flight. Her own final flight to eternity lay only six days ahead. A life cut short by circumstance and discord. She was 23.

These young men and women were from America’s small towns and big cities, rural countryside settlements, the deep South, the coasts and the Intermountain West. I was in Jackson, Wyoming, a couple of weeks ago following their deaths, where flags were at half-mast across the state to honor a young Wyoming man, Rylee McCollum, among those lost.

His family, schoolmates, friends and others from his small town of Bondurant remembered him particularly for his love of country. They said he had always wanted to be a Marine, and so he was. He put country ahead of all else. Sadly, he leaves behind a wife and a yet unborn child. He was just 20.

The path of human history gives us many examples in which duty to country outweighed whatever fear the defenders of freedom may have carried. They went to do what they were asked to do.

In Kabul, they laid down their lives for people they did not know, for generations yet to come. As Scripture tells us, there is no greater love. They are today’s equivalents of the patriots on Lexington Green, the defenders of Little Round Top at Gettysburg, the men who scaled the cliffs at Normandy and who fought in the jungles of Southeast Asia.

In one recent election, one candidate was a flight officer in the Vietnam War; John McCain’s campaign signs said simply “Country First.” That’s where Cicero tells us to place our first duty, because without country, the freedoms and way of life we enjoy either never materialize or are lost.

This week, we remember the horrible events of Sept. 11, 2001, in which thousands of Americans perished in a moment. But we should also remember that for some, the sacrifice was the call of higher duty. As the fourth terrorist airplane made a beeline for Washington, D.C., on that September morning, citizen American passengers on board Flight 93 understood both the risk and their opportunity. “Let’s roll,” one could be heard saying as they struggled to gain control of the terrorists in the cockpit. The plane crashed in rural Pennsylvania and all were killed.

Islamic terror seems to be a feature of our times, reaching big cities like New York as well as tiny Bondurant, Wyoming, population of fewer than 60 people. Brave American men and women stand by the nation they love; it matters not where they are from, nor their gender, nor race. It is the same faith of freedom, whether it be Kabul today or on Sept. 11, 20 years ago. Though separated by time and a generation, the American soldier’s devotion to love of country is unbounded in both circumstances.

That more than 120,000 Afghans were flown out to freedom is surely to be welcomed. They did not have the luxury as we do of policy debate. Rather, they were just the latest of the world’s displaced. “Give me your tired, your poor,” writes Emma Lazarus on the Statue of Liberty (1883). “Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The Wyoming soldier’s life and those of his comrades should bring us a deep appreciation and honor for those who went before, directly into harm’s way. Cicero and our forefathers would be proud indeed.

Stephen Hartgen

Twin Falls