Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Long Lines Leading to Freedom

I’ve been thinking about long lines this week.

There was a long line of solemn faced friends and neighbors who showed up at the funeral home on visitation night to walk past the casket of 23 year-old Private First Class Edwin Anthony “E.J.” Andino, II, to put an arm around his grandpa’s shoulders, to hug his weeping mom, Kathy, and to shake the hands of his painfully stoic dad and brother.

E.J. was killed September 3, 2006 when an improvised explosive device detonated near his Humvee while he was responding to a mortar attack against a U.S. Army camp in Baghdad. He joined 2nd Lt. Leonard Cowherd as our town’s fatalities from the Iraq war.

I will never forget the long line of hundreds of uniformed American Airlines pilots and attendants that filed into the Culpeper Baptist Church sanctuary when we had the funeral for Ken and Jennifer Lewis, a married couple who both worked as flight attendants. Ken and Jennifer had arranged to work the same flight so that they could have some beach time together. Instead, they died when their plane, American’s Flight 77 to Los Angeles, was hijacked by followers of Osama bin Laden and flown into the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.

Our town has mourned and honored our two flight attendants who died on 9/11 and our two soldiers who died in Iraq, and on September 9, 2006 we formed a long line of flag-waving citizens on the road to the school auditorium where we rejoiced and celebrated the safe return of the 3rd/317th U.S. Army Reserve Unit coming home from its 16 months of service in Iraq.

At that homecoming ceremony, battalion commander Lt.Col. Robert P. Chappell, Jr., said, “What it takes to be brave is sacrifice.” He gestured toward the family members of the unit sitting in the bleachers and thanked them for the sacrifices they had made while their loved ones were deployed.  He never mentioned the sacrifice made by he and his own family.

The previous November, Lt.Col. Chappell had to leave his position near the Syria-Iraq border and come back home for his 16 year-old daughter’s heart surgery. He was able to stay long enough to be at her hospital bedside and to join his family for a Thanksgiving dinner at a Cracker Barrel restaurant. He was not able to stay for his older daughter’s wedding three weeks later. "It will be one of those life-altering events that I'll miss," he said.

One of our local reporters, Katie Dolac, grew up as a career soldier’s child. She went to Ken and Jennifer Lewis’ gravesite to do an article on the 9/11 anniversary, but she came away with the realization that they were actually a part of her own life story.

Katie wrote: “Staring at those names, Ken and Jennifer Lewis on the five-year anniversary of 9/11 - coincidentally my dad’s birthday - I was overcome, even though they were strangers to me. A lifetime of patriotism and sacrifice culminated in that very moment. All of a sudden the reason for a lifetime of sacrifice, the reason I lived a rootless existence, the reason my dad took us to all those battlefields and taught us all those patriotic songs was very clear to me. My dad’s job was never more real, the innocent lives lost were never more real and the ultimate sacrifice of soldiers such as 2nd Lt. Leonard Cowherd and PFC. E.J. Andino and their respective families was never more appreciated.”

Lt.Col. Chappell said he carried the flag of the Culpeper Minutemen, emblazoned with its motto, “Liberty or Death”, and Virginia’s flag with its motto, “Thus always to Tyrants”, to towns, villages and battlegrounds throughout Iraq.

There is a long, long line of tyrants and dictators who see the mottos carried by Lt.Col. Chappell as the greatest threat in the world to their own selfish existence: Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea; KIM Jong Un of North Korea, Isaias Afewerki of Eritrea, Saparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan, and the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of Iran, to name just a few.

But there is an even longer line of brave and sacrificial folks who are willing to live, serve and die so that others can be free.

The Bible verse that E.J.’s family had printed into his funeral card tells the reason they serve: “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.”