This article first appeared in The Washington Post on July 2, 2007. It is posted with permission of the author and the Post.
A soldier's day was once regulated by bugle calls, from morning reveille to chow call at noon to retreat at sunset and taps late at night. Thus the phrase "to answer the bugle call" has been used to describe citizens responding to a national threat. Those who rise to this call to defend their country are the young, and they sacrifice accordingly.
We witnessed this during World War II with my father's generation. We heard it clearly in the words of John F. Kennedy, who told us to ask not what our country can do for us but what we can do for our country. But we've also witnessed serious divisions.
Our nation has been in a state of war for nearly six years. American forces have been in Iraq for more than four years, a longer commitment than during World War II. A new generation has risen to defend us once again, but strangely this time there has been no bugle call. No leader has made a broad appeal for service in a time of need, and no real request has been made for most Americans to sacrifice in any way. Most of us go about our daily lives unaffected by the trauma and tragedy that occur daily in Iraq and Afghanistan, whether we support the war or oppose it.
But some heard a call and answered. I met a number of them as I traveled to Balad, Iraq, with an air-medical team from Mississippi and California to pick up wounded GIs and Marines and ferry them to the Landstuhl military hospital in Germany and then on to Walter Reed. I met not only these injured but the many others from this generation—doctors, nurses, pilots, air crews—who tended to their needs along the way home. These caregivers are unsung heroes, and they treasure the brotherhood they share with their injured comrades. They perform countless acts of kindness and healing to little public acclaim.
All these men and women are truly extraordinary—the injured and those who care for them. They represent all of America in a mosaic of old and young, male and female, Hispanic, black, Asian, white.
They include a young Minnesota National Guardsman wounded after 14 months in Iraq. His unit had been scheduled to head home but was extended to 15 months. He is 21. Last month he lost both his legs to an explosively formed projectile.
He has a right to be bitter, but he isn't. Two days after his personal tragedy he laughed with me in the hospital and said that when he was hurt he told his sergeant, "I guess this means I won't have to take that PT test you scheduled for me." He did that to keep up the morale of his buddies as they applied the tourniquets that saved his life.
I talked to an intensive care nurse who has been handling severely wounded people for more than five years. As the senior nurse, she stayed with those diagnosed as terminal. She did not want them to die alone, and she placed a personal note with their effects so their families would know that they hadn't.
There was a soldier who had been blown from his tank by an improvised explosive device that broke his back. He was 37 and had recently joined the active Army. He continued to smile as he lay on a pillowcase decorated with scenes from "Superman" and talked about his buddies. He told me that he was sure that his kids were proud of him.
A trauma surgeon who has been operating and saving lives in Afghanistan and Iraq and at the hospital in Germany since the war began told me how he kept his morale so high: by keeping in mind always that he cared for heroes every day.
This account is not pro-war or anti-war. It is simply about war and the terrible tragedy that it is. The people I had the privilege to meet had several things in common. They all believed they had responded to the bugle call, no matter how faint. None spoke of politics or party. They came even though they did not have to—no one really asked them to—and they represent but a small fraction of their generation.
They have served, suffered, sacrificed and endured. America marks a number of patriotic moments at the onset of summer—Memorial Day, D-Day, the Fourth of July. I hope most of us take time on these days to reflect on those past and present who have sacrificed. Sadly, this reflection should also remind us that this long twilight struggle will continue no matter how the Iraq war turns in the coming months.
If we are to survive as a nation with our values intact, then we must find leaders willing to make the call. Leaders who will call us to serve each other, to serve in our towns and cities, churches and schools and, if needed, in the military—leaders who will urge us to care for these young veterans and their families in need of our help for many years to come.
This coming together to meet a challenge has always been one of our nation's greatest strengths, and we need that strength now.