Friday, May 28, 2010

The Price of Freedom

In the spring of 1966, I was drafted into the U.S. Army during what was referred to as the Vietnam Conflict. They never did call it a war – apparently, they didn’t want to alarm the civilians.

I did my Basic Training at Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri, then was permanently stationed at Third Army Headquarters at Ft. McPherson in Atlanta, Georgia.

Ft. McPherson was a small post, primarily a golf course and an Officer’s Club. The office complex was occupied by throngs of senior officers, including an assortment of generals, no doubt making key decisions like deciding what color to paint the new wing of the Officer’s Club and how many soldiers it should take to screw in a light bulb.

I had four years of college and had been a computer programmer when I was drafted, thus I was assigned to the Third Army Data Processing Company where I was issued two blue pencils, assigned to a desk and given the title of Data Processing Analyst. I also received a Top Secret security clearance because I would have access to sensitive information and spent the remainder of my two-year commitment working night shift, along with a few other analysts, for a civilian employee. My duties consisted of coding certain items on classified documents that were subsequently forwarded to another department for computer processing.

Basically, events in Vietnam had little effect on me or my fellow analysts. We just did our jobs and counted the days until we could go back into the civilian world. But every now and then, we were required to perform extra duties. One such duty was funeral detail. The family of every deceased soldier is entitled to a military funeral and requests were frequent in those days.

It takes 17 soldiers to perform a military funeral. Six soldiers carry the casket, two of whom fold the flag draped over the coffin and hand it to an officer who then passes it on to a family member. Seven soldiers stand at attention off in the distance, waiting to give a 21-gun salute, along with a sergeant to give the orders. Finally, a bugler lingers nearby to play Taps, often out of sight, while the driver usually waits at the bus. I participated in many funeral details, each one a supremely sad ordeal.

One was in a tiny family graveyard, in the middle of the woods outside of Sevierville, Tennessee, near the Great Smokey Mountains National Park. By the time the proceedings started, there must have been a thousand people crammed in the small clearing, all mourning the loss of one of their own. Whoever we were burying would certainly be missed.

Another Army funeral was performed in central Alabama. It was a rowdy white-redneck crowd where a few of the attendees took exception to that fact that the diseased was one of them (white) and there were a couple of black soldiers in the funeral ceremony. The 1960s in the Deep South were still highly racially divided. It became very tense and confrontational, to the point of attaching bayonets to our rifles. There are four stages of grief -- denial, anger, depression, acceptance. If you attend a few military funerals, you’ll get to see all four stages.

The most gut-wrenching experience took place on top of Lookout Mountain, outside of Chattanooga, in an old Civil War Cemetery. Several hundred people attended. It was an incredibly quiet day, not a breath of wind. The whole place seemed haunted.

The service was performed flawlessly, the flag folded and presented to the family. As usual, I was one of the seven soldiers standing in line, waiting to give the 21-gun salute. Even though we were at least fifty yards away, we could hear a tremendous sorrow overtaking the audience. Several women began to wail uncontrollably.

We went through our paces and fired off three volleys, a 21-gun salute, then stood at attention. After a couple of seconds of silence, the bugler started playing Taps. It was the most beautiful version I had ever heard, as if it came directly from heaven.

In the background, the sound of mass anguish became overwhelming. It seemed like the entire audience had burst out crying. When Taps ended, there wasn’t a dry eye on that mountaintop, including those of us putting on the show. To this day, I can’t listen to Taps without dwelling on that moment of grief and wondering how many others like it mankind must endure before we learn to live in harmony.

The following list reflects the number of Americans who gave their lives for their country.

American Revolution (1775-1783) – 4,435 dead
War of 1812 (1812-1815) – 2,260 dead
Mexican War (1846-1848) – 13,283 dead
American Civil War (1861-1865) – 558,052 dead
Spanish American War (1898) – 2,446 dead
World War I (1914-1918) – 116,708 dead
World War II (1939-1945) – 407,316 dead
Korean Police Action (1950-1953) – 33,651 dead
Vietnam Conflict (1957-1975) – 58,168 dead
Gulf War (1991) – 293 dead
War on Terrorism (2001-????) – in progress

May 31 is Memorial Day, when the USA pays tribute to those who sacrificed their lives for the ideals of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. We are deeply indebted for their valiant service.

Freedom is never free.

Quote for the Day -- “We cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.” Edward R. Murrow

Bret Burquest is an award-winning columnist and author of four novels. He lives in the Ozark Mountains with a dog named Buddy Lee and where freedom is still worth dying for. His blogs appear on several websites, including

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