Wartime and the Ultimate Sacrifice

I think if you were to ask most Americans in what month Veteran’s Day falls they wouldn’t have a clue. If you asked them what the holiday was about you might get a few right answers, but not many. Frankly, until six months ago I never gave Veteran’s Day a serious thought. I’m the guy who doesn’t know when it hits on the calendar until I open the mailbox and realize nothing is there because it’s…well…you know…Veteran’s Day!

So what is this American holiday anyway? Simply put: Veteran’s Day is a day to honor men and women who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces. Political views aside, most Americans agree that it’s right to honor those who have put their lives in harm’s way out of sense of what General Douglas MacArthur called “duty, honor, country.”

My dad fought in WWII and when I was kid he told me some pretty hair-raising stories of his years in the Army. But I was too young to really understand that as a 19-year old kid he put his life on the line when he shipped out to the Pacific Theater. Later, as a self-centered teenager, I saw troubling images from the Vietnam War every night on the news, but still didn’t think about it much. It was a world away.

So what happened six months ago that has given me a new appreciation for Veterans Day? I escorted my 91-year old dad on an Honor Flight trip to Washington DC designed to bring WWII vets to see their memorials and honor them for all their sacrifices. First off, he was under the average age of the group. There were a lot of guys in their upper 90’s and a few over 100 years old! Hanging out with these men (and a few women) for a couple of days, listening to their stories—what they did when they were caught in the middle of the Pearl Harbor attack, how they shivered inside tanks during sub-freezing winter nights, potentially deadly encounters with the enemy—and seeing the looks on their faces as they remembered…I came away wondering how they did it. And why.

Reflecting on that experience reminded me of a statement uttered by that first century Jewish preacher and miracle worker who claimed to be the Messiah: Yeshua of Nazareth. He said, “Greater love has no one than this that someone lay down his life for his friends.” In time of war, that sometimes happens. Now and then we’ll read about a serviceman who gave his life to save the life of someone in his or her unit; a fellow soldier, airman, marine, or sailor. Though we might call that the ultimate act of courage or bravery, Jesus called it the ultimate act of love: caring more about the other than oneself.

These acts of self-sacrifice in times of war demonstrate the truth of what’s written elsewhere in the Bible: “Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die.” A few notable examples: In November 1943 in the South Pacific, Marine Sergeant Herbert J. Thomas, Jr., deliberately fell on a grenade, sacrificing himself to protect nearby Marines. In February 1954, Israeli Defense Forces private Nathan Elbaz was disarming grenades when he noticed one of the grenade's safeties had slipped. He grabbed the grenade and ran from the tent but realized he wouldn't be able to throw the grenade away without harming some of his friends, so he smothered the explosion with his body, instantly dying. In 2006, Army Specialist Ross A. McGinnis was killed instantly in Iraq when he used his body to smother a grenade, saving the lives of four nearby soldiers. Corporal William “Kyle” Carpenter took the brunt of a live grenade lobbed by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2010, saving a fellow Marine’s life. Miraculously he lived. Acts of courage? Yes. Acts of love? Yes!

But what happens if the person in danger isn’t really a good person? Would anyone choose to die for him? The verse continues, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, the Messiah died for us.” Just as the Hebrew prophet Isaiah foretold.

So maybe this Veterans Day you’ll think a little more about those who served in our military. Maybe you’ll find a veteran and just say thanks. Maybe the holiday will also cause you to think for a moment about whether Yeshua’s voluntary death for others has anything to do with you.

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