I have met some military bigwigs I did not care for. I did not care for their assumption that because they sported a bunch of colors on their chest, they had profound insights into society or politics. On the other hand, my work has thrown me in close contact with ordinary soldiers, airmen or marines whose sincerity and simplicity have charmed me.
In both rich and poor countries, I have seen that the vast number of service people come from modest families. Affluent families send their children to fancy colleges and expensive universities. They would like their children to work in banks, insurance companies, investment firms and corporate headquarters. It is the poor and middleclass families whose sons and daughters look desperately for jobs in factories, workshops, retail stores and delivery companies. They join the military in large numbers.
He was a part of the marine guard in our embassy. His uniform and his manner spoke of a person out to do his duty well. But his young face and earnest voice spoke of a simple, inexperienced lad from the countryside.
I found an opportunity to speak to him and learned of the tiny town where he grew up. His father and two uncles were farmers; none had attended college, nor had his mother. But Orville liked to read and wanted to go to college. And see the world. How does a farmboy get that kind of an ambition?
Orville extracted from his hip a small well-thumbed pocketbook of Dr Seuss’s poetry, ‘Oh, the Places You'll Go!’ I read:
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself any direction you choose.
The direction he chose was this place in Central America. He was carrying a Spanish phrasebook and tried bashfully to exchange a few sentences with me. He said he was enrolled in some online courses toward a degree.
Every time I met him afterward he tried a few more Spanish words on me. He was looking for more exciting opportunities and, when he tried to translate ‘moving mountains’ I remembered Seuss’s couplet,
Your mountain is waiting,
So... get on your way!
I returned to Washington and had a card from Orville, on his first deployment to Afghanistan. He was happy and excited, though he reported how baffled and anxious were his relatives in Merom, Indiana.
When he returned from his second deployment, he called and narrated his experiences, both harrowing and thrilling. I remembered his gentle face and advised him to be careful in all circumstances. He assured me he was in a very good team that would protect him.
He sent out a card to his friends just before leaving on his third tour. It spoke touchingly of his parents and younger brother and the fun he had with his uncles and their children. He was going again to serve his country and he wrote, “There are games to be won.” I recalled that was a quotation from his favorite author, Dr Seuss.
That was his last deployment. A roadside explosive device blew up in his face in the Helmand province when he bent down to examine something suspicious he saw. Dr Seuss had warned:
Things may happen and often do
to people as brainy and footsy as you.
His family went to the Seattle airport when his body was flown in, though they were advised not to see it. They would have liked him interred in Merom next to his grandfather where they could easily visit his graveside, but they knew Orville preferred to be buried in Arlington Cemetery near Washington along with his comrades in arms.
So it was on a bright summer afternoon, on Memorial Day, I went to Arlington and met Orville’s father, mother, brother and two uncles. We sat on the grass next to Orville’s cenotaph and shared memories. Happy memories, comic memories, proud memories, memories that made a young man come alive again.
I thought of the eager youthful face longing for adventure, as Orville’s uncle handed me a cup of coffee. As I sipped, I read the last bit of Orville’s epitaph from his headstone, inscribed with words from his beloved book:
Ready for anything under the sky.
Ready because you're that kind of a guy!
Wars have been fought and will be fought again. Historians will speak of win and loss. But for Orville’s loving family and the people like me who cared for him, there will be only an irredeemable loss.