Death as a Mentor

chip militaryIt is not my style to tell personal war stories. The recent Boston terrorist attack was followed by some struggling with the decision regarding how best to honor those who were tragically killed or injured. Some said pause; some advised cease; and some believed continue on. It brought back memories of a specific wartime incident.

During the late summer of 1969, I was commanding an Army reconnaissance unit with the 82nd Airborne. We had suffered heavy combat losses that bloody summer. Our decision following a loss had always been to valiantly pursue our mission with excellence in honor of those who died. We believed it was what they would have wanted; that to give in or hunker down might signal to our enemy that they had prevailed. While we always took time to grieve and say a prayer for our loss, we never tarried from our mission.

Without going into a lot of gory details, we lost a soldier in battle late one night. It was far too dangerous for a helicopter to fly in so we sat with the body until first light. One of our soldiers named Ron had earlier put in a request for emergency leave due to both his parents being gravely ill. The morning the fallen soldier’s body was flown out, Ron was asked to return on the same helicopter in order to process home. He never returned. And, we continued our mission.

Almost forty years later, Ron saw my name on the 82nd airborne website. He wrote me a long letter explaining how he had spent many years suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder in the local VA hospital. The PTS had led to challenges with alcohol and domestic conflict. He and I started corresponding. In one letter he wrote, “I never got to go back to work with you, sir. I never got any closure by letting the lesson of our mission teach me how to get on with my life.”

Death is many things to many people, interpreted many ways. It can teach us about the preciousness of life. And, it can be the impetus for living life every day to its very fullest. Let us celebrate the lives of those lost at the Boston Marathon; and, let us pledge to pursue a life of excellence in their honor.


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