Dying in the cause of freedom and liberty, then and now

March 02, 2006|By BRIAN C. JONES

WASHINGTON -- When it comes to Iraq, the news media sure love to focus on one thing and one thing only - dead soldiers.

Forget democratic elections. Forget the creation of a constitution. Forget stability in the Middle East and the world. It's all about the number of American servicemen and women killed in the line of duty.

That figure seems to be the best way for anti-warmongers to stir the debate over the tenuously supported conflict being led by the tenuously supported president. See Cindy Sheehan's dead person tally T-shirt as Exhibit No. 1.

FOR THE RECORD - In the Civil War battle of Antietam, 3,650 soliders were killed on Sept. 17, 1862. An article Thursday gave an incorrect figure. The Sun regrets the error.

Death scares and yet captivates people, including me. And so do the stories that tout the numbers of brave Americans who answer the call to service but don't come home.

As a result, we don't often hear about the many positive things that are coming out of Iraq or about the bigger-picture mission in which our troops find themselves engaged. That makes it hard not to focus solely on bad news, such as casualty numbers.

A recent visit to the civil war battlefields of Antietam (near Sharpsburg) helped provide me with some renewed perspective. More than 22,000 people died there in one day of fighting, Sept. 17, 1862. That's nearly four times the number lost at Normandy on D-Day. And it's about 10 times the number lost in the 1,000-plus days of the Iraq war.

Touring the massive battleground, I was moved by the significance of the battle and what it meant for the future of the young America. And while I was struck by the unbelievable numbers of soldiers killed, I was struck more by the sheer scope of America's challenge at the time.

Iraq is now facing a similar challenge. There, a new democracy is testing the mettle of its new freedom. And it's struggling to overcome forces that seek to exploit the fragility of that new freedom. Sound familiar?

The tests there today are the same ones America has confronted throughout our history at places such as Antietam. And without the bravery of selfless individuals who believed in something bigger than themselves, they are tests we most certainly would have failed. In the context of Iraq coverage, this is a story I wish we heard more about.

The Antietam National Cemetery is a moving tribute to these brave pioneers of freedom. Nearly 5,000 headstones remind us of the sacrifices made on that crisp September day, including one that struck me as out of place.

A closer look confirmed my suspicion: Navy Fireman Apprentice Patrick Howard Roy, a Maryland native, died not at Antietam but on the USS Cole during the terrorist bomb attack Oct. 12, 2000 (two other sons of Maryland also were lost).

When asked where they wanted their 19-year-old son to be buried, Mr. Roy's parents requested the Antietam cemetery - not because of a particular historical parallel or significance, but more simply because he had been a volunteer worker there before enlisting to serve his country. Serving "was something he wanted to do," a family friend said.

Closed to burials for nearly 50 years, it took a little help from the National Park Service, the National Cemetery Administration, the Pentagon and a few diligent members of Congress to grant the Roys' request. But on Oct. 28, 2000, with full military honors (which included lying in state in his hometown of Keedysville - population 500 - and, later, a Purple Heart), Patrick Howard Roy was buried at Antietam.

Standing at the foot of his grave, I found that his presence provided an important connection for me. America's battles may come in different places, at different times and against different enemies, but the mission is almost always the same. Liberty and freedom must be protected at all costs and on all fronts. All the brave men and women lost - at Antietam, on the USS Cole, in Afghanistan, in Iraq and throughout the world - fight and sacrifice in the name of advancing this noble cause.

Americans such as Patrick Howard Roy are not simply casualties to be tallied and totaled. They are patriots to be remembered and honored and celebrated along with their timeless mission. Sometimes it just takes a visit to America's past to remind us of that.

Brian C. Jones, a former writer for members of Congress and President Bush, is a lawyer who lives in Washington. His e-mail is brian_jones@dell.com.

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