Never having lost a husband or grown child myself, I can only have compassion for the families who grieve the loss of a son or daughter during combat. I imagine that although you know there are risks, you somehow convince yourself that your loved one will come back as they left you. But I can only imagine their reality.
Earlier this week, the lead news story throughout Australia was the loss of 32-year-old Commando Sergeant Brett Wood a
“decorated hero in an elite unit” according Brendan Nicholson in an article entitled US pays tribute to Sgt Brett Wood in The Australian On-line. As a career soldier, Wood had already received the Medal for Gallantry in 2006 (for saving US-led troops) and was back in Afghanistan for another mission when his troop was hit by an IED. Three other soldiers were in serious condition.
As I listened to the announcement by Air Chief Marshal Allan Grant “Angus” Houston praising Wood, I not only had sadness for Wood’s death, I also become introspective about how we remember other military personnel around the world who have lost their lives.
If you haven’t already seen it, take the time to watch Digger Dies In Afghanistan. You will see not only a professional account of Wood’s achievements, but also sincere support to his family and friends on behalf of the Chief of the Australian Defense force. Additionally there was a moment of silence in Parliament, with speeches from the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader (click title for video link), tributes pouring into various sites and statement from his wife saying (among other sentiments):
“The care and support we have received today from the Defence Force as well as Brett’s colleagues simply reinforces how well-respected Brett was.”
Commemorating Wood’s passing isn’t unique. As far as I am aware, this is similar for each Australian soldier who has lost his/her life. I’m certainly not saying this isn’t warranted. For Australian subscribers, this process might seem perfectly natural. What I’m conflicted about is how different my experience is to the passing of US soldiers. So I thought I’d investigate.
According to the Wikipedia article Coalition casualties in Afghanistan (including Pakistan and Uzbekistan) from 2001 to 24 May 2011, the US Department of Defence lists the combat death tally as 1,503 American, 365 British, 154 Canadian and 24 Australian, not to mention the other countries losses.
Unfortunately I cannot comment on what the public sees in England, Canada or elsewhere — I would welcome your experiences in a comment. What I can share is my experience of the passing of US soldiers while living in Australia.
What I know of here is once a week the PBS NewsHour (broadcast here on SBS) runs a silent “Honor Role” slide show at the end of the program, for those who died that week. It includes the US soldier’s photo, name, age and rank. (Unfortunately I cannot find this list on their website if you wanted to see the list yourself, but would be interested to post if someone does find.) Outside of that, I’m not aware of anything. In the US I wasn’t sure what else was done, so I had to look further.
After typing “honoring soldiers afghanistan” into Google, I discovered that like PBS, CNN has something called “the Home and Away Initiative” which commemorates soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. The first and most comprehensive site to come up in a search is “Honoring the Fallen” where you can search by name or rank someone you’ve lost. I was surprised not to find any governmental references within a few pages of my search, and I wonder if this is because the “Honoring the Fallen” site is a published by the Gannett Government Media Corporation (so funded by the US Government).
What I like about these sites is there is an opportunity to put a name and face to the people fighting the war, if you choose to look. What I was looking for was public recognition. Committing some history to the images I see on the web in a public forum, particularly to the people who sent them to war: congress. So back to Google.
I thought by typing in “moment of silence” I’d surely find some Congressional initiative or protocol, at a minimum, a reference to when they were held. What I found shocked me. Since 2001, the US House of Representatives has had a moment of silence for the following events:
- Marking the Death of Michael Jackson
- Honoring the six people killed in the Tucson rampage as well as Representative Gabrielle Giffords, D-Arizona
- Mourning the loss of property and life in the victims of the midwest and southeast storms
- Commemorating the students and faculty killed during another shooting rampage at Virginia Technical College
This is only a sampling, but I did not find any reference to moment of silence for the troops (and yet for Michael Jackson – how could this be?). At long-last I was happy to find a Huffington Post article that chronicles the moment of silence in the House honouring soldiers (both serving and those who’ve died). The article states that for the last 2 1/2 years Representatives have been taking a moment of silence the first day of each legislative month. With Speaker John Boehner (R. OH) taking over from Nancy Pelosi (D. CA) in 2010, Rep. Walter Jones (R. NC) introduced legislation to permanently keep this informal tradition alive, which has now passed.
On February 17, 2011 the House opened for the next legislative session and I watched the C-Span video capturing this moment with anticipation. I was hoping to see something similar to what happened in Parliament for Wood. I was sorely disappointed. Literally it is a moment of silence after a brief set up from the Speaker. No names of soldiers lost that month. Nothing to mark their professional or personal endeavors. Just silence…and then clapping. I was dumbfounded.
After sharing (airing?) my feelings (venting?), my Australian husband patiently explained to me that in the US the population is simply too large to be able to have the same recognition that the Australian soldiers are afforded. Unsurprisingly I did not like this perspective, despite its pragmatism.
Perhaps my expectation that American and Australian soldiers should have similar recognition (given they’re both coalition forces doing the same job) is untenable and I am being naive. But I respect the men and women who choose to put their lives on the line for what they believe in as well as the families who live day-to-day waiting for their loved one(s) to return. Perhaps there is a way to better balance both the recognition of a life lived and the need to go on with the tasks of living. What do you suggest?