Sacrifice is a hard thing to grasp until it is forced upon us in tragic and terrifying ways. This week, the country watched in horror as a man driven by evil, in an act of rage, robbed Americans of their fundamental right to life. Their sacrifice was duly and painfully noted.
A world away, in Iraq, more than 4,000 American soldiers have paid the ultimate price. We recognized their sacrifice.
More than 400,000 American soldiers perished in the name of freedom in World War II. We recognized their sacrifice.
On Wednesday, the nation was supposed to stop to honor those who have served our country so diligently, yet their sacrifice was not recognized as it should have been. Unfortunately, all too often it takes a tragedy to capture our attention; it takes a disaster to make us truly appreciate those who serve our country.
Arizona Cardinals safety Pat Tillman caught the attention of America in 2002 when he traded in his cleats for a pair of army boots. Tillman would serve his nation for two years before dying in Afghanistan. Tillman would have celebrated his 32nd birthday last week, but it was only upon his death that sacrifice was dutifully noted.
Tillman’s deployment and ultimately his death were media fodder for weeks on end, but why was his deployment special? Why did he get all of the coverage?
Tillman was a return to the way things used to be. During the world wars and the wars in East Asia, professional athletes in the military were not out of the ordinary. Baseball superstars Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio served in the United States Armed Forces during World War II, as did scores of other athletes.
NFL prospect Bob Kalsu was well on his way to a stellar career in the pros. In 1968, he was the Buffalo Bills Rookie of the Year. In 1970, he was a casualty of war. Slain in Southern Vietnam, Kalsu could have made millions; instead his journey was cut short.
The professional athlete has all but disappeared from the military scene. Tillman was the last of a dying breed heroes, and we recognized his sacrifice.
This year, the New York Yankees were hailed as heroes, showered with ticker tape and praise. This year, the streets of New York have also been filled with protesters demeaning the courage and sanity of the American soldier.
We as a society have become tragically confused. We immortalize the athlete, yet we disregard the soldier. Most who serve in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will return with their lives. They will come home to pomp and pageantry, but they will soon be forgotten. Thousands of Vietnam War veterans are forced to beg on the streets of America’s cities – the same streets that celebrate their heroes and their titles.
An athlete dies, and it makes national headlines. A soldier comes home broken, and it is just another proverbial day at the office. We can lie to ourselves and make ourselves think we honor our veterans, but we do not. It is a tragedy that in order to be honored by society, you must yourself be a tragedy.
Thousands of soldiers will return from the Middle East this year, and their scars will not be visible. They will be shaken, disturbed and broken by a conflict that seemingly has no end. Yet, their sacrifice will not be recognized.
Every day, five U.S soldiers try to kill themselves, but we never hear of this condition. Contrarily, a boisterous wide receiver accidentally overdoses on pills, and it becomes a national headline. America has a “hero perceptionw disorder,” and we are not actively pursuing a remedy. Pat Tillman had it right; he understood what sacrifice meant. We immortalize the wrong crowd.
In the end, it is not the touchdowns we catch or the tackles we make that define us. We attain hero status only when we give of ourselves. That’s what sacrifice is all about. May we remember those who have given their lives for our nation, but may we also remember those who come home alive. We have to redefine what a hero is. This Veterans Day weekend, may we stand up and recognize sacrifice.