Friday, November 11, 2011

Honoring Sacrifice: A Tale of Two Mothers

Working at the flower shop in April of 2004, I was in a position to see a portion of the outpouring of sympathy, gratitude, and respect accorded the family of Marine Corporal Jason Dunham, a local boy who gave his life by throwing himself on a grenade in Iraq, thereby likely saving the lives of two of his squadmates. Perhaps it doesn't do to call a 22-year-old man who gave his life for others a "boy," and Dunham's last actions on this earth were certainly the actions of a courageous and mature man, but as the mother of three sons aged 23, 21, and 20, it's hard for me to see him as anything other than a boy in the same way I will probably still be referring to my own sons as "my boys" long after they have boys and girls of their own.

Corporal Dunham's mother, Deb, is a truly remarkable woman in many ways. I do not know her personally, but for the five years after Jason's death that the flower shop was still operating, orders would come in from all over the country for Jason's birthday and the anniversary of his death every year--people wanting his family to know he was not forgotten. On one of these deliveries, bearing several baskets and vases of flowers, I was met at the door by Deb who was holding a napkin full of still-warm chocolate chip cookies  for me to take back to the shop. It may seem an inconsequential thing, but something about that simple act of thoughtfulness on a day when many moms would've been curled up in a corner mourning their loss really touched and amazed me.

In the years after his death, Corporal Dunham was publicly memorialized in numerous ways. The post office in his hometown is now the Corporal Jason L. Dunham Post Office. A naval destroyer bears his name as do various facilities on military bases around the country. In January 2007, Corporal Dunham was awarded the Medal of Honor--only the second soldier to receive the Medal for actions in the Iraqi War and the first Marine to receive it since Vietnam.

Corporal Dunham's mother has been present at various ceremonies honoring Jason over the years and she has done many print and on-camera interviews in various venues, including for a short documentary on the Marine Corps site. Without exception, Jason's mother has behaved with amazing dignity, grace and generosity while bearing one of the worst burdens a mother can bear.

I admire her strength and really see her actions as a way of honoring the sacrifice her son and so many soldiers like him have made for our country, but there have been times when I wondered how I would've handled myself in a similar situation. 

The footage of the ceremony where Deb Dunham received the Medal of Honor from then-President George W. Bush especially made me think. This was at a time when doubts were steadily spreading about the "Weapons of Mass Destruction" in Iraq. Those alleged WMD's had been the rationale for our presence in Iraq to begin with and not only had they not been discovered nearly four years into our involvement there, new information was emerging with some regularity that indicated many in the administration had known all along that the intelligence behind the WMD theory was faulty.

I had had my doubts about Bush and his motives in Iraq and elsewhere long before that point. If I had been in the position of standing next to him to receive an honor for my dead son, would I have been able to take comfort in the President's apparent appreciation of my son's sacrifice? Would I have nobly accepted the award being offered on behalf of a grateful nation?

Under the influence of such a loss, would I have been able to restrain myself from asking impertinent questions about the "cause" my son had died for? Would anything other than the presence of the Secret Service have been able to prevent me from calling the President of the United States a murderer and a liar directly to his face?

There was another mother who lost her son in April of 2004. Army Specialist Casey Sheehan was killed in Iraq when the Humvee he was driving was ambushed. His mother, Cindy Sheehan, chose a different--and some would say much less dignified--path than Deb Dunham did. Within a few months of her son's death, Cindy embarked on a path of anti-war activism that included the hyper-publicized "Camp Casey" in August 2005 during which Cindy set up camp a few miles from President Bush's ranch in Texas, demanding a face-to-face meeting with Bush so that he could explain what "noble cause" her son had died for. Cindy waited there for nearly four weeks and was never granted that meeting, but she did not go away quietly and continues "speaking truth to liars" (the tagline of her current website "Cindy's Soapbox" ).

Along the way, Cindy has weathered many criticisms--she has been accused often of being unpatriotic and of dishonoring her son's memory with her protests of our government's actions. This strikes me not only as an incorrect assertion, but an absolutely ridiculous one. Cindy has been vehement in taking advantage of the very rights and freedoms her son--and thousands and thousands of others--died to protect. She has done so at great personal cost not only to herself, but no doubt to the rest of her family as well. She has been arrested many times--including as recently as last month.

Do I agree with every idea Cindy Sheehan has put out into the world in the eight years since her son died (especially some of her most recent thoughts)? Not by a long shot. Do I think all of her methods are the most effective available? Also, no. Do I believe her actions are her sincere efforts to honor rather than dishonor her son's sacrifice? Absolutely.

If our soldiers are going to continue to fight and die, isn't one way of honoring them to continue to ask those in power how, exactly, these sacrifices our soldiers are asked to make will protect our nation and its citizens? If the places our soldiers are asked to fight and the actions they are asked to take seem only indirectly and incomprehensibly related to the safety of our nation, are we not entitled to a full accounting of how these efforts will make us safer?

It is not only possible to support the troops and still question the government, it is in some ways the most meaningful and long-lasting support we can give.The notion that our soldiers fight and die to protect our freedoms but that by exercising those freedoms we are somehow dishonoring our soldiers is absurdly un-American.

Deb Dunham and Cindy Sheehan are two mothers who chose to honor their sons in wholly different, but equally valid, ways. Today, my thoughts are with not only those lost sons, but with their mothers as well.

To all those men and women who fought and are fighting still, here's the thing: That America you're fighting for is a complicated place; the gratitude of your fellow citizens sometimes comes in some messy packages. May your sacrifices never be forgotten or taken for granted.

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