The stale smell of sweat rose off the crowd and permeated the air throughout the chapel. Designed to seat 600 people, over one thousand soldiers were squeezed in, breaking every fire code known to man. It didn’t matter; we were there to honor one of our own. It was still and quiet with not even a whisper of a breeze blowing. I could feel the pressure of the soldier to my left and right, squeezing in on me. I didn’t mind the burden; everyone has the right to say goodbye.
Our company First Sergeant stood up in the balcony at the rear of the church: “Sergeant Peterson, Report.” “Here, First Sergeant,” he responded in a clear voice. The First Sergeant’s deep bass voice rolled through the air, with the resonance of years of experience in commanding troops enhanced by the chapel’s acoustics. “Specialist Davis, Report.”
Specialist Davis responded in a slightly reedy, almost shrill voice, “Here, First Sergeant.” There was a few seconds pause as if the group was collectively taking a breath.
Again the First Sergeant’s voice reverberated through the chapel, “Private Shellman, Report.” Nothing but silence answers this call to duty. Again the words were deflected towards us, “Private First Class Shellman, Report.” The command, carried with authority, hung in the air awaiting a response that would never come. Nothing but silence greeted this call to service. “Private First Class Andrew Shellman, Report.”
The words slapped me in the face with palpable force. I knew that I would never see Andrew again, and yet I expected him to answer. The silence was oppressive, laden with the sense of sorrow, grief, and anger. Sorrow and grief that Andrew would not be in our lives, never drink, work, live, or see us again. The anger was directed towards the forces that took him away from us. Just when I thought that I couldn’t take anymore, the haunting notes of TAPS escaped the bell of the trumpet, to stand quivering in the air before us, playing upon our emotions.
Through tear-stained eyes, I looked towards the front of the chapel. No ornately gilded pulpit stood there. Instead there was a plain wooden table, upon which a photograph of Andrew sat; his dog tags draped over the picture, his Kevlar helmet, and a pair of spit-shined jump boots that reflected the American flag presiding serenely in the background. Listening to those mournful notes, I sat seemingly alone in the chapel and reflected upon the ultimate sacrifice that Andrew had given.
I stood up; standing in front of the table, I looked at the smiling face of Andrew and saluted him. A warrior’s farewell, a comrade-in-arm’s farewell, and most of all, a friend’s farewell. Army Private First Class Andrew Shellman, a friend and loved one, was laid to rest on October 23rd, 2003. He was twenty years old.
He died on his twentieth birthday. While driving a truck loaded with humanitarian supplies for the Iraqi people, an Iraqi rocket-propelled missile hurtled into his truck’s cab and exploded. Andrew left behind a wife of eleven months and a one-month-old baby he never saw. Andrew’s death and memorial service caused me to reflect upon patriotism.
What is patriotism, and why is it such a key element in society today? Felix Frankfurter, a United States Supreme Court Justice Associate once said, “We have enjoyed so much freedom for so long, that we are perhaps in danger of forgetting how much blood it cost to establish The Bill of Rights.”
When is the last time you stopped to consider your freedom and how it was gained? Have you ever seen a veteran and stopped to take the time to say thank you? Take a moment to picture this country without freedom. Imagine a country where you have no right to free speech. Think about how it would feel to live in fear everyday, not knowing if you had been reported for saying the wrong thing. Quite possibly, you might not say anything at all, but get arrested anyway for no reason, other than you look suspicious.
What kind of a world would that be like to live in? Would you want to raise children in this type of environment? We went into Iraq not only to oust Saddam Hussein, but also to give the Iraqi people the same freedoms that we enjoy. How can we as Americans turn a blind eye and deaf ear upon those who are enslaved by tyranny and call ourselves humane? Doesn’t our character as a society demand that we put a stop to dictators that enforce their will upon a people through torture, murder, rape, and other crimes against humanity?
As long as the American flag flies over this country symbolizing freedom and equality for men and women, we will be a beacon for those without these rights. I am not a proponent of war by any means.
However, I am realistic. Two opposing forces such as democracy and dictatorship cannot coexist on the same planet peacefully. The people under a dictatorship will always want the freedom of democracy, especially when the dictator is so calloused to human needs, and life. And how can Americans ignore the suffering of such people? Strife will always exist, and so will war.
I, as a soldier, have no more desire for war than anyone else; however, I stand willing to fight for our freedoms and to fight for others to have those freedoms. The freedoms of speech, religion, justice, equality, to bear arms, and numerous others were bought and paid for by the blood of some 1,197,000 American soldiers who died for us in numerous conflicts and wars.
Some would say wars in foreign countries aren’t the place for us to die in; but when the cry of freedom resounds, I will respond. Does it matter who I am fighting to free? No, it only matters that people, no matter what religion, race, color, or geographical location have an inherent right to freedom. When the world is a free place, I will stop fighting.
The epitome of patriotism is the ultimate sacrifice of one’s life. After all, how much more can a person give to a cause, other than his life? Not everyone has to, or is expected to, die for the ideals of freedom. Veterans just ask that you respect and remember those who have died so you can be free, as well as those soldiers who stand ready at a moment’s call to do so. Then in your own way, you will be upholding the standards of patriotism.