The following was originally published May 21, 2009:
I recently decided to run the Atlanta ING Half Marathon. I can’t really tell you why, as I hadn’t run an appreciable distance outside on pavement in over ten years. Most of my cardio activities are within the confines of a gym, usually on an elliptical machine or in the pool. I do miss jogging and its opportunities for a cerebral escape. Most of the time, I’m hardwired to the rest of the world with various electronic devices. I sleep with both a Blackberry and an iPhone on my headboard. The time I set aside for exercise is designed not just to slow down an expanding waistline and an accelerating aging process, but also to clear the mind. An hour or so in the gym, pool, or on a decent run is often where I write a lot of my original posts. At least in my head. Sometimes, it takes me a while to get them out of there. This is one of two I wrote during that race in March. It’s the first to make it out onto the word processor.
I was less than a mile into the race when I had my first doubts about finishing. It took only that long for my left knee to remind me why I gave up jogging. As I was questioning my sanity for resuming running with a race more than twice the length of any I had previously completed, one particular jogger passed me that caught my attention. The man, probably my age, was wearing a full army uniform. Full, as in, complete with combat boots and backpack. First thought: weird.
He was on a pace much faster than myself, and it wasn’t long before his physical presence was a distant memory. He remained present on my mind as my thoughts shifted from a bum knee to why someone would want to run 13 (or 26) miles wearing fatigues and boots instead of dri-fit clothes and shoes from Nike. Of course, he was doing it to make a statement. The exact statement is in the eye of the beholder, but I had 12 slow miles to think it through.
Based on his years, I will assume that this man has probably worn his race day attire in Iraq and/or Afghanistan. Probably also Kuwait at the beginning of the last decade too. He’s probably run as far or farther under weather conditions that were a lot less favorable than the 50-60 degrees we were lucky enough to experience that early spring morning. I imagine the desert is a bit hotter. He probably had to run through worse neighborhoods than Midtown, Virginia Highlands, or even the Old Fourth Ward. He probably did so with weapons drawn for his own personal safety and that of those in his company, not under the watchful and protective eye of the Atlanta PD. As painful as the race had already become for me in my proper attire, I was willing to bet this gentleman was having a walk in the park compared to what he’s seen.
But what was in his backpack? It seemed full. This perplexed me for a mile or so while I tried to come up with ideas of what he might want to carry as part of his symbolism. It could have been fluids for rehydration, but it seemed too full yet crisp. It could have been mementos of fellow soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice in other lands and weren’t available to run with him. Possible. In the end, I could only conclude that there was only one answer that would satisfy my version of this amazing symbol. He was carrying us.
The weight of sacrifice that a soldier assumes when he puts on his uniform, boots, and backpack is measured in quantities much greater than pounds. Our fellow contributor, Jace Walden, is just reaching his duty station in Afghanistan as I write this. It is not his first trip. He has already been away from his home for two months in preparation for this tour. It will be 10 months before he returns home. He leaves behind a girlfriend and family who love him.
For someone in his early twenties, the opportunity cost of this sacrifice is great. When he returns home safely, the sacrifice will still be very real. Time away from loved ones, especially when in the prime of your life, is time you will not get back. Jace does this as a volunteer. He does it for us. The sacrifice is real.
I didn’t get to see the face of the soldier who ran by me. So the face of Jace and the others I know who are serving or have served filled my thoughts for a few more miles. They did this for us. What are we doing for them?
Almost everyone, even those against the mission, will say they “support the troops”. And given that this is a political blog, we’ve had the debate over the mission. The soldier doesn’t get to debate this. He volunteers, he receives orders, he complies, and he serves. Today, I ask that we not debate the mission. Our comments need to be about our soldier’s sacrifice, and whether or not we are upholding our end of the bargain.
We’re a people motivated by politics, or we wouldn’t be here. But do our political activities serve the purpose of ensuring life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Or do they serve to score cheap political points? Do we attempt to see people from other political parties as Americans who have a different approach from me, or do we see them as the enemy? And, above all, are the actions we take in the name of politics those of self-sacrifice or are they self-serving?
I can’t, and won’t, claim purity on the above questions. They were questions I asked myself as the race continued. I didn’t always like my own answers. But I also know that each day is a new day. We all have the opportunity to do better today than we did yesterday. Sometimes we just need a little motivation. That day, it passed me wearing combat boots and a backpack.
I hit “the wall” with about a half mile to go, but I had gone too far to quit. A man in uniform with the weight of the free world on his back had finished well ahead of me. My journey wasn’t pretty, and my time was not impressive, but I chose to finish, and I did.
This weekend, we will celebrate Memorial Day. This is the day where we honor those whose sacrifice was the greatest of all. Many will ask that we take a few minutes away from our barbecues and recreational activities to say prayers for safety of those currently serving, and prayers of remembrance and thanks for whom this day is set aside. My request includes these things too. But I’ll also ask that we take a moment to reflect on our end of the bargain. What are we doing, and what are we willing to sacrifice, so that we can honestly say we’re making the freedoms that these soldiers have fought and are currently fighting for are truly secure and available to all?