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Posted: May 30, 2010 12:30 a.m.

The ultimate sacrifice

A couple of months ago a guy named Roger Nixon dropped by the house. My wife’s dog let me know an unfamiliar pickup was in the driveway, so I ambled out to see who it was. Roger was taken aback, as the balding, fat guy holding the coffee cup in no way resembled the man he’d come to see.

He’d driven down from Gainesville, where he’s executive director for an outfit called Defense Placements, just to find his old football coach. He told me that bonds he’d formed on the football field led him to seek a similar environment, which he’d found at North Georgia College and, subsequently, in the armed forces. My former offensive lineman served America in the Gulf War in both conventional and non-conventional forces, and now specializes in placing folks in areas of critical need.

I’ll always treasure the very idea that Roger took the time to share with me that I’d actually mattered. Because we all want to matter, and suspect that we do. Yet it’s rare when that dearly held and important hope is substantiated by others.

A memorable scene near the conclusion of the film, "Saving Private Ryan," illustrates my point. An aged Private Ryan and his wife stand before the grave of a Captain Miller, a man who died saving Ryan in World War II. The old man looks directly into his wife’s eyes and says, "Tell me I’ve led a good life."

Confused by his request, she hesitates. Ryan then demands of her: "Tell me I’m a good man." Suddenly realizing the significance, she acknowledges Ryan’s virtue, thus assuring the dead benefactor that his sacrifice had not been wasted.

In my lifetime I’ve sought out three places which I wish every American would visit. Each site conveys a sense of how individuals have mattered, how everyday and ordinary people made a difference, and illustrates why every American alive today owes so very much to people they never knew nor even heard of: patriots who made the ultimate sacrifice for our benefit.

The first of those places is Gettysburg, Penn. It’s still a small town, not much bigger than it was in early July 1863. Yankees under General George G. Meade were desperate to stop Confederates led by General Robert E. Lee, whose intent was to crush the only Union force between them and Washington, force Abraham Lincoln to sue for peace and thus establish the Confederate States of America as a separate nation.

At issue was one which still confronts our United States today: should states have the right to govern within their borders, or should the federal government reign supreme?

More than 46,000 Americans shed their blood in Gettysburg’s fields and forests attempting to answer that question. President Lincoln later delivered a short address there which, to me, still represents the most beautiful use, ever, of the English language.

No matter on which side of the issue contemporary citizens find themselves, visiting Gettysburg and walking "Pickett’s Charge," paying careful attention to the field of battle, crystallizes a clear understanding of total commitment. Men do not give their lives lightly, nor sacrifice themselves for their progeny or their nation’s future, without total commitment.

My visit to the National D-Day Memorial in tiny Bedford, Va., taught me the very essence of sacrifice. Bedford lost 22 men in the Operation Overlord invasion of June 6, 1944. That’s more men, per capita, than any other place in America. Bedford’s town folk built the memorial themselves, to commemorate the sacrifice made by their sons in the defense of liberty. One leaves this place with a heart-rending realization of the true cost of our freedom.

A visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D. C., speaks to duty done for freedom’s sake. The nearly 60,000 names of Americans who answered liberty’s call for help halfway around the world are inscribed on those polished black walls. They answered with their very lives, as have tens of thousands who performed their duty defending freedom in Korea, Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan.

I’ll always treasure a football player taking time to find me and to tell me that a long, long while ago something I did mattered. But how does one go about telling those who fell in the name of freedom how much they are appreciated? How does one let them know their sacrifice is known, treasured, honored? That they mattered?

This Memorial Day, graves of veterans in cemeteries across our nation will be adorned with little American flags. The least I can do is to take time to visit and pay my respects, and to say a prayer or two. And I’ll hope that when it’s over that, for them, I’ve lived a good life, and have been a good man.

Nat Harwell is a long-time resident of Newton County. His columns appear regularly on Sundays.

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