Someone very important died not long ago, but only a few people noticed. Where were the headlines for Ace Gibson? Surrounded by family and staff at the veterans’ home, he quietly exited this earth. Why did no reporter show up to cover this, his last great act of gallantry? Though we live in a world of million-dollar sports contracts and block-buster movie earnings, surely the passing of an old soldier is still important.
I know he wasn’t famous—not in the way other men have obtained fame. He was not a film star. Not a NASCAR racer, rolling out of control on a dangerous curve. He wasn’t even a politician or a small town businessman. Yet surely this must be one of life’s more glaring ironies: Often those that live and die for themselves receive much public acclaim, while those that live and die for others, die in obscurity, unseen and unsung.
That’s how it was for Ace, anyway. What he accomplished on the battlefields of
Europe was infinitely more important than any celebrity “job” which ultimately benefits only the celebrity himself. But to be fair, barely a handful of Ace’s buddies are even alive to remember the days when they were all young together, and others knew him to be just a regular guy who looked like any other old man, and they never knew his past. He was a quiet man who lived a quiet life. He stayed married to one woman for 60 years, raised a family and worked with the railroad in Kansas City for thirty years. He never talked about war experiences. Oh, he’d share the funny things—frying “borrowed” eggs in his combat helmet—things like that.
“Did you ever kill anyone, Dad?” his daughter asked one day.
His eyes looked far past her, and finally he answered. “Yes.”
But that was all he ever said. So maybe it is not anyone’s fault that no fanfare was blown and the nation’s flags never moved to half-mast when Ace passed on. There he lay, where the frailness of age and the ravages of Parkinson’s disease had brought him quietly to the end.
It wasn’t until his funeral that things began to surface. “Did you know that the battalion he was in landed on
Utah Beach at Normandy just days after DDay?” someone said. “He fought in the Battle of the Ardennes and was on hand for VE Day.”
His wife doesn’t know where the medals are, but she found an old map, yellowed now with the years. It shows the path his battery, part of the Super Sixth Armored Division, took on those sad, weary days so long ago. A dotted line shows where his young feet walked, the battles he fought, the victories won. But it doesn’t begin to tell what his eyes saw, what his hands had to do, and what he was willing to give for our freedom.
More than sixty years have passed. Other wars have come and gone. And other men like Ace—some older, some younger—still hide their stories behind quiet eyes. And this is what I wonder: How do I say “thank you” to them before they, too, pass away unsung? Is there a way I can let these soldiers know that someone somewhere appreciates what they did on the behalf of women, children and a nation still free?
They don’t want to talk about it. But I do. I’d like to speak to each and every one—the pilots, the sailors, the infantrymen, and somehow convey to them that the hardships they endured, the atrocities they witnessed and committed to purchase freedom—were not in vain. I want to show them my children, laughing and carefree, and say thank you. Thank you for doing what you did, so I and my children could grow up in a safe and free country, where we can meet without fear and speak without apprehension.
I also want to say, “Thank you for risking your youthful dreams to purchase mine.”
I’m sure they’d brush it off, saying, as one has already said to me, “The real heroes are underground.”
But here’s what I cannot comprehend, as I look at soldiers—some in nursing homes now, some still strong in the power of their youth, and just returning from Iraq or Afganistan—why should men and women die for people and children they don’t even know? And yet I know the answer, even as I ask: Because within each is heroism, is gallantry, is the willingness to fight for the things that are precious, even to the giving of life. Truly, “…greater love hath no man than this, than that he lay down his life for his friends.”
So what I’d really like to say to Ace and to each and every soldier, sailor, flyer and marine, alive and dead is this: “May He who sees all things, bring to remembrance and hold in honor your quiet heroism. God bless you, Ace—you and those like you. And on behalf of all Americans—a deep and heartfelt thank you.”