A couple of weeks ago, TV news was full of accounts about the Medal of Honor awarded to Sergeant First Class Jared C. Monti. As the mother of a soldier who was deployed to Afghanistan around the same time that Sergeant Monti was killed there, it was painful to watch his parents try to help the rest of us understand who their son was and what it means to the world to have lost him.
My heart was filled with: "That could have been my son. That could have been Matt." It could have been Matt because, in 2006, he, too, was a sergeant leading a small group of soldiers in some of the most dangerous terrain in the world. It could have been Matt because coalition forces made a big offensive push in June of that year in which he participated. I know now that there were many nights during that time that Matt and his unit did not think that they would survive until morning.
Sergeant Monti would have turned 34 this month. Matt just turned 35.
I think about my last conversation with Matt before that deployment - his first of three, including his current deployment to Iraq. "I don't want to die, Mom," he said. "I'm just not afraid to die. My greatest fear is losing one of my soldiers. I can't bear the thought of losing one of my soldiers." Throughout his Army career, Matt has put "his soldiers" first. Sergeant Monti called them "my boys," and he died because he would not leave one of them. Those soldiers, those boys (and girls) respond to this kind of leadership with devotion and sacrifice of their own.
Like Sergeant Monti, Matt collected clothes and food for the children of Afghanistan. Our family and friends sent him enormous shipments of the things that he said they needed. Matt's concern for the people among whom he finds himself didn't begin in Afghanistan. I can still hear him when he was sent to his first assignment in a small village in Korea: "Mom, the kids are out in the cold without shoes!"
You have to know how important these soldiers are to each other and to their NCOs. Sergeant Monti donated his newly purchased kitchen set to one of his soldier's families stateside. Matt stops at nothing to find resources to help his soldiers who find themselves in trouble.
As a teenager in Massachusetts, Sergeant Monti cut down a fir tree in his family's yard for another family with no Christmas tree. When Matt was little, an older, bigger neighbor boy delighted in bullying him, perhaps to compensate for a terribly chaotic family life. One day, Matt got off of the school bus without his jacket. "I gave it to Ben," he said. "He just had a T-shirt on this morning, and he was shivering on the bus. I had a warm shirt, so I gave him my jacket." The bullying stopped.
Clearly, these fierce warriors have a kind and compassionate side, preferring compromise and consensus to conflict. Matt's mother-in-law, commenting on one photo of him from Afghanistan, said, "It's strange to see such a gentle man with such a big gun." Perhaps that's why military people like Sergeant Monti and Matt are so valuable to us; they don't confuse their warrior mission with their place in humankind.
So these young men, the very best that our nation has, make enormous sacrifices - for each other and for us. Their families live with devastating loss, like the Montis. Or, like ours, they struggle every day with the fear that someone will come to the door with the worst of news. Their absences cause a painful vacuum in our lives. As valuable as they are to their country, they are priceless to us. Regardless of the political context of their combat, they respond with honor and valor.
While our military personnel make these sacrifices, back in the U.S. we are attacking each other like a particularly feral bunch of weasels. It doesn't seem to be a very good way to honor them, despite all of the "Support our troops" magnets in the world. We can support them by allowing them to bring out the best in the rest of us and becoming worthy of them.
Do we deserve this sacrifice? Are the people of our nation working together to solve our challenges? Are we looking for common ground, to do what is best for all of us, not just "me and mine?" What is Sergeant Monti's and Matt's sacrifice - their families' sacrifice - worth to you? Are we going to tear each other apart, or are we going to settle down and make this nation work the way it's supposed to work?
On behalf of our gallant warriors and their families, let each of us live our lives in a way that gives meaning and dignity to their sacrifice.
Jeannette Duerr, a communications consultant, lives in Ellicott City. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.