Supporting Those Who Pay Freedom's Price

Veterans Day is long since over.  But those who pay freedom’s price, while rejoicing at past successes, know that freedom continues to hang in the balance and feel the need to give and receive ongoing support, especially during the holidays.

An exemplar in this regard is American Veterans Center.

At its recent national conference in Washington, D.C., one of several annual events they sponsor, including the National Memorial Day Parade, American military heroism was on poignant, powerful display, helping troops -- past and current -- heal from continued acts of heroism.

Members of the legendary Doolittle Raiders, Band of Brothers, and Tuskegee Airmen, as well as Major League Baseball players who fought in WWII, and decorated veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, and their families, all came to share and mentor.

Their stories were gripping.

Ed “Babe” Heffron, veteran of E (Easy) Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th parachute infantry, assigned to the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division, recounted that day during World War II when he and his team parachuted into Holland to liberate the Dutch people from Hitler’s reign of terror.  Called Operation Market Garden, their heroics were immortalized in the Cornelius Ryan book A Bridge Too Far and its 1977 movie version, and more recently, in the HBO series, Band of Brothers, based on Stephen Ambrose’s book.

Dutch resistance members with troops of the US 101st Airborne in front of Eindhoven cathedral during Operation Market Garden in September 1944. One of those he rescued, Heffron said, compared losing his freedom to when, as a little boy, his mother got pushed off a bike, depriving them of their means of transportation. The profoundly grateful Dutchman reminded Heffron, “When you hear the word freedom, think about losing it. It’s when you lose it that it means everything.”

As to their own feelings that day, Heffron said:

“Everyone had the same idea (in the plane): what the hell am I doing up here?  I could be back home having a soda or standing on the corner with the guys,  (but) when you saw the faces of those Dutch people and the children, you knew (raising his voice) why you were there, you knew why you did what you had to do.  I’m telling you, if you ever get in that predicament, you’ll know why you’re there. Just the look on their faces was everything."

While it’s important to reflect on past heroics, Medal of Honor recipient Marine Colonel Harvey C. “Barney” Barnum, honored at the closing awards banquet for his valor in Vietnam, reflected on the present, emphasizing “we’re still at war.” And, he urged everyone to “say a prayer for those soldiers, seamen, airmen and marines who are on point tonight.”

Present day heroism showcased included that of Navy SEAL Lieutenant Michael P. Murphy, who died in Afghanistan on June 28, 2005, while trying to save his team on a mission to find a key Taliban leader, for which President George W. Bush awarded him the Medal of Honor on October 22, 2007.

He was the first serviceman to be so honored for bravery in the present wars.

Michael had thought about law but his family tradition of service drew him to officer candidate school, on the way to earning his SEAL Trident and joining SDV Team ONE where he was the Alpha Platoon Assistant Officer in Charge, deploying in 2005 to Iraq, Africa and Afghanistan.

That day, deep in the Hindu Kush Mountains, Lt. Murphy’s four-man team encountered goat herders, which, under his direction, they let go. Soon thereafter a swarm of Taliban fighters with superior tactical position began attacking them, and Lt. Murphy, in a last ditch effort to save his men, entered the fighting space to get a clear signal and call rescue forces -- losing his life, but enabling rescue of the team’s lone survivor.

Lt. Murphy’s father Daniel recounted the gracious visit he and his wife Maureen had with President Bush the day he awarded their firstborn the Medal of Honor.  After they gave him Michael’s dog tags as a gift, he began to undress -- prompting quizzical looks -- to put them around his neck, then put his shirt, tie and jacket back on, saying “OK, now we’re ready to go.” Later, he broke protocol, grabbing the Murphys onto the red carpet and telling them “Murphs you did good, but I thought I did even better because I had Michael right next to my heart.”

Then, too, often battlefield heroics continue to echo in the hearts and minds of those who fight, as they heal from war’s wounds, discussed in “The Wounded Warrior Experience” forum. All the panelists agreed, often the hardest wounds to deal with are those that are hidden, and shared insight on avoiding depression, which boils down to this: recognize the problem and get help.  As SSgt. Jeremiah Workman (USMC) counseled, giving up is “an 8000 mile sniper shot, another win for the enemy.”

American Veterans Center is a win for freedom and supporting those who pay its price, and rely on your support, especially during the holidays.