This number represents the total of American soldiers who have died in combat in all U.S. Wars. It does not include hundreds of thousands of other soldiers who died as a result of disease or accident. (The American Civil War, alone, is responsible for over 224,000 more deaths when you factor this in.)
It does include James Wesley Pierce.
James Wesley Pierce, Wes to his family and friends, was the third of five children born to James and Myrtle Pierce. Intelligent and handsome, with red hair and freckles, Wes was a Christian, an Eagle Scout known for always telling the truth. He was particularly close to his older sister, Florence, who happens to be my paternal grandmother.
My great uncle Wes was a navigator on a B-29 Superfortress long range bomber in the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II. His plane was shot down over Japan in July of 1945, just two weeks before President Truman ordered the bombing of Hiroshima, which, coupled with the bombing of the city of Nagasaki three days later, effectively ended the Second World War. His remains, and the remains of his entire crew, are buried in a St. Joseph, Missouri military cemetery in a container the size of a cigar box.
I confess I have no idea what it’s like. With apologies to the fictitious Colonel Nathan R. Jessep, I never served in an infantry unit, never served in a forward area, never put my life in another man’s hand and asked him to put his life in mine. Early in college, the Persian Gulf crisis was intensifying. We all wondered what it would mean for us. Would we be called upon to serve through the draft? I remember thinking at the time if it came to it, I would be honored and willing and ready to serve my country. But it didn’t happen in 1991 like it did in the 1940′s. I can’t comprehend what it must have been like for a generation of parents who were facing the reality that a percentage of their children would be sacrificed on the altar of freedom and that was just the way it was and there was nothing they could do but hope and pray and cry. But my great Uncle Wes understood. And so did his parents. And my grandmother.
I’m incredibly grateful.
My great uncle had a life and dreams and plans. He had a girl. He was waiting until after the war was over to get serious. He never got the chance. His life and dreams and plans and future went down over the Pacific Ocean in 1945. The clearest expression of love is sacrifice. And because of my great uncle’s (and so many others) love for his country and family, and his willingness to lay down his life for what he believes, I am able to live in a country where I’m free. Free to have a life and dreams and plans. Free to have a girl. And to get serious with that girl.
So I got serious with a girl. And in time that girl and I had a son.
His name is Jonah Wesley. We named him after my father.
My father’s name is Jonathan Wesley. He’s named after his Uncle Wes.
I have many hopes and prayers for my son. Some I can articulate and some are just inexpressible groans in my soul. But one of my hopes is for him to learn and understand the truth that love and sacrifice are inexorably linked. That he would be generous and forgiving and unselfish in his relationships with family, friends, teammates. That he would put aside his own comfort to bring comfort to others. That his love would lead him to give up certain luxuries so others might flourish. I hope he learns from my father, who once gave up the company he built with his own blood, sweat, and brilliance to provide a better life for his children. And I hope he learns from his Great Great Uncle Wes, who knew sometimes there are things – truths, values, principles, ideals – worth giving your life for. I hope he honors the legacy of his name.
And I hope he never has to die for his country. But if someday evil men rise up again and threaten the very freedoms and values we hold most dear, I hope that he will be willing to honorably and courageously do so.
Just like my Great Uncle Wes.