Memorial Day Thoughts

McGHEE TYSON AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Tenn. -- In the basement family room of my wife's Iowa farmhouse is a pretty standard collage of family photos. Some are of now nameless turn-of-the-century relatives and some are fairly recent, portraying growing grandchildren. On one wall are three perfectly level rows of six 5x7 photos corresponding to the six Kahlstorf children born to Harold and Faye over a twenty year span. There are three each of my wife and her five brothers; eighteen pictures in all.
The arrangement for four of them is identical: a childhood picture, a high school graduation picture and a wedding picture. The two exceptions are Jeffrey, who died as a little boy in a farm accident, and Keith who was killed in Vietnam 40 years ago tomorrow. 

In lieu of a wedding picture there is his official Marine photo and except for the uniform, his Marine photo is not appreciably different from his high school graduation picture taken a mere two or so years earlier. But tucked inside the frame is a faded 3x5 snapshot of him in Vietnam. It's not a posed picture, but rather a random shot likely taken on impulse. He is in the standard olive drab, sweaty fatigue uniform and he is sitting on the wall of a Buddhist temple with his M-16 rifle next to him. You can see his face and eyes.
Unlike his official photo Keith seems to be donning a slight grin. If the picture was taken today in Afghanistan you can imagine a scoffing 'hey dude, what are you doing?' Soon afterwards he was killed in a mortar attack. He was twenty years old. 

My wife Sandi tells of a sad day in May when she was called out of class to report to the office. Her peers teased her at this uncommon invitation and her confusion grew when she saw her father in the hall. When she stepped out he exclaimed, "They got him! They got Keith!" He had to be specific because another brother was also in the Marines.
Typical of small farming communities, the town of Britt embraced her family and mourned the loss of one of their own. The crowd at the funeral was huge as many of his peers made the pilgrimage back home. It is hard to imagine anyone who did not set aside farm chores or shuttered their shop to attend services.
At the graveside service Scriptures were read, prayers were offered and then sharply dressed Marines folded a flag and fired a 21-gun salute with absolute precision. Mournful taps were played, and hugs, tears and promises of support were exchanged. 

Then life did what it always does, it moved on. 

Years ago when I married into the family I heard little about Keith. He wasn't a taboo subject but for whatever reason little was said about him. In fact I've never heard a recording of his voice. Over time I grew curious about this brother-in-law I never knew and have tried to piece together a composite picture of him. 

Physically he was about my size, perhaps a bit taller and we shared the same shoe size. I know that because his service boots were sitting unused in the basement and they fit me perfectly. My mother-in-law gave them to me and I used them mostly for hunting. Looking back I regret that for while practical it now seems a bit irreverent. But when I was sitting quietly in a deer blind it was hard not to stare at my feet and think about Keith. 

Once I was speaking at an event and in the context of my talk I somehow referenced Britt, Iowa. Afterwards a woman introduced herself to me as having grown up there. As it turned out she knew Keith well and so in the few minutes we had together I curiously asked her about him. What was he like? What did she remember about him? 

She paused and answered and rambled a bit as we are wont to do when surprised with thoughtful questions. After a minute or two she finished and then began quietly crying. I stood quietly and then she spontaneously reached out and hugged me, a stranger but mysteriously connected through an old loss. Then she offered Keith the highest compliment one could receive; she said she missed him and wished he had not been killed. 

Keith Kahlstorf grew up on a farm - perhaps the last of a generation to live on a modest, but adequately sized farm. He worked hard at chores but in between he managed a social life centered on high school and sports. He was a decent student but a good wrestler, a state champion in his weight class. He was a dutiful son, a good marine, and a helpful big brother to his sister. He dreamed of finishing college and becoming a teacher and wrestling coach. But the fatal combination of a draft and a mortar shell put an end to that dream. 

My life was different from Keith's. I grew up in a military home and lived in Germany in the early sixties. Having no television we often went to the base theater on Fridays and watched movies. My favorites were World War II films, the ones you now see on cable channels. 

Afterwards my friends, other sons of sergeants, and I would reenact those battle scenes in fields outside our quaint German village. Using rocks for grenades and whatever toy guns we could scrounge, we played war. Sometimes we fought the Japanese, but mostly we fought the Germans - it was convenient. Causalities were common but we all lived to fight another day. For us war was game. 

Then in the summer of 1962 our family went on a four-week camping trip through southern Europe. This was the era of Europe-on-five-dollars-a-day and so six of us plus a tiny grandmother squeezed into a 55 Buick. 

One morning, while winding our way through the hills north of Rome, we made an impromptu stop at a U.S. military cemetery. I was numb to the significance of the site but was grateful for the reprieve from sitting. When the door opened we flowed out and I went exploring. 

I remember a fountain and a shallow memorial pool, which naturally captivated my boyish attention. Beyond the pool was a field of headstones, nearly 8,000 of them, all of them American soldiers killed in the fighting which was then less than 20 years earlier. 

That moment remains with me. It was a clear summer morning when the heavy scent of newly mown grass hung, along with the humidity, thick in the air. The headstones were arranged in gentle arcs on broad green lawns beneath rows of Roman pines. I grew mesmerized by the sight of those crosses and tablets lined up in perfect order. Regardless of where I stood and viewed them they were in perfect order, standing as though called to attention. 

When I caught up with my family my mother was softly crying. Concerned I discreetly inquired of my father as to the trouble. He was an Air Force sergeant and fit the profile well - short hair and not prone to coddling kids. But that morning with all the gentleness of Mr. Rogers he put his arm around me and quietly explained the significance of that sacred place. I learned that these men had died in "the war," the one that I played at, the one my mother was touched to tears over. 

It was then, at that very moment in the hills of Italy that I made the connection between war and death. Up until then it was a game played between friends with only occasionally scrapped appendages as casualties. But that morning I learned that war brought death and sadness. 

Keith was killed in the fourth week of May of 1969. Life magazine, then a powerful media presence, took an editorial position against the Vietnam War and in the June 27th issue published a pictorial collection of everyone who died in Vietnam that last week of May. By macabre coincidence that was the week Keith was killed. 

So there on page 27 is Keith's official Marine photo along with a caption giving his name, age and home town. 242 names were printed in that edition. 242 body bags were needed that week. 242 funerals were held. Countless families and friends were interrupted and impacted by the sudden death of those 242 mostly young men, "average for any seven-day period during that stage of the war" as the article spelled out. 

Years later I enrolled in a graduate history program and focused on America's wars. One semester I read almost exclusively on the European conflict. I read so much that I grew concerned that my interest in war was unhealthy. I began questioning my mental state. 

But as I was driving to class one evening I had an epiphany of sorts. I realized that what attracted me to the study of war were the vibrant extremes of the human spirit. Humans have the capacity for great evil on both a small and large scale and wars illustrate this to the extreme. But we also have the capacity for love, service, and great sacrifice. Military cemeteries illustrate both extremes. 

Much later I spent a year studying at the Air War College and more recently, as an Air Force chaplain, I have deployed to both Afghanistan and Iraq. I have studied war in a formal sense and have engaged in it at a personal level and with the triple combo of education, experience and diminished testosterone, I have concluded that war is a complex state of political affairs in which destruction reigns and sadness survives for decades. 

In what can only be considered poetic irony the infamous communist leader Joseph Stalin best sums up my feelings. He said, "A million deaths is a statistic; a single death is a tragedy." 

When you study war casualties are statistics; hopefully not mere statistics, but statistics nevertheless. It is impossible to put your emotional arms around thousands of war dead. But when you are connected with a single causality - war becomes tragic.
On a recent visit to Britt I played golf and my chance partner was another peer of Keith's. For two or three holes he recalled stories from their past and then he looked at me and mentioned that it just struck him that his son was now the same age as Keith was when he was killed. 

He then turned away and stared into the adjacent cornfield in silence. We were in no hurry so I left him in his thoughts and then he wiped an eye, turned around and we continued. Nothing more needed to be said. 

When visiting Britt, before leaving I make it a point to go downstairs and ponder the pictures. I look at them all but my final stop calls me to stare at this good-looking, steely-eyed young Marine in the picture. I suppose it is my way of memorializing his sacrifice. 

When I joined the family I saw in that picture a peer for I was then close to his same age as he was in the picture. Later I viewed him as a younger man. Now more than enough years have elapsed that I now see in that picture "a kid" as colonels my age are prone to call our servicemen and women. 

And I wonder what life would be like if the draft or the mortar had missed Keith? What weddings and births might have occurred? What friendships would have developed? As an educator, what kids might he have impacted? How much richer would Britt be if Keith Kahlstorf had not ended up in that issue of Life magazine? 

Pure speculation, but I do wonder?
Forty summers have passed since that awful day. Forty summers ago Keith was barely not a boy with a lifetime of summers in front of him; now he is a fading memory. But there are a few people who think of him every day and wonder, what if? And there is a whole nation of people who did not know him and never thinks of him but unknowingly stand in appreciation of the sacrifice he and other soldiers, sailors, airman and marines continue to make to defend our nation.