Standing beside the helicopter is my Father, James Edwin Aldridge. He served in two branches of the military. The Navy, which he joined when he was underage, and the Army from which he retired as a Warrant Officer. His service spanned three decades and as many wars.
During WWII he took advantage of the boredom of duty on Saipan to get the education he was denied as the oldest son of a subsistence farmer and coal miner in Kentucky. He always praised the military for this. The Armed Forces gave him freedom from poverty and ignorance; as it has for countless young men and women.
Korea seemed to define his military career for him. He was in a Ranger unit, from the 505th Airborne, when the Chinese joined the conflict. He always said that his greatest accomplishment in the military was never losing a man while he was on the line with his unit. He cursed the time he was in a field hospital, he never watched MASH, I think more for the fact that some of his men died without him as much as the pain of recovering from a grenade blast. He carried shrapnel from that attack until his death, along with the pain and guilt over his fallen friends.
He never talked much about his time in Indochina from 66-67. He said it was the only time he had ever been truly afraid. I never pressed after he said that, if it was worse than Korea I didn't want to know.
My Father never claimed that he joined the military out of love of country; he joined as a matter of survival. But the act of serving, his duty, changed him. In the early sixties we were stationed in Washington, DC. One of his duties there was to evacuate the constitution in case of Soviet attack. Although he never had to fulfill this plan, he got to see the document. It became personal to him. He could read it to me from memory. He carried a copy of it everywhere in the years just prior to his death. It was like a shield. It was like a picture of his family.
It wasn't until Ella came into my life that I began to understand. I loved my wife, and I would have given my life for her without hesitation. But, I would kill for my family, with or without remorse, whether the act saves my life or costs my mortal soul.
On Memorial Day we should remember the other great sacrifice our soldiers offer; separation from the people they love, often years at a time. This is the great tangible loss suffered by nearly everyone that puts on the uniform. We should honor the living for what they give a chance to sleep in safety, in our own beds. I have never been one to pray, but I am when I am away from my family. I pray for one thing - another day with Ella and Rowena. It is the only thing I want and so far the answer has always been yes. And perhaps if my Father's vision of heaven is real he and I will spend another day together, in a large vegetable garden. We will hoe. We will sweat. We will eat the sweet corn right off the stalk in neat, well tended rows of paradise.