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Sunday, May 24, 2015

More Than Just Names

 As their names cross my mind, I can see their young faces now - brave men they were. Men with families, with talents, bound by their love of country and freedom. Men who sacrificed their lives for their fellow comrades and for those waiting back home. 
 I see Army Capt. Ben Tiffner, a West Point graduate whose love of God and others touched countless lives during his short military career. Ben had the amazing ability to make friends with anyone and to leave a lasting impression on those he met. Now, eight years after he died while serving with the Army Special Forces in Iraq, Ben's life continues to impact those who are left behind, and his legacy endures in the memories and hearts of every one of them. 

 I see Marine Lcpl. Grant Fraser, a fellow Alaskan whose smile and love for life infused this world with a much-needed touch of happiness. Grant was gifted with a wonderful ability to laugh through life's storms and to find joy no matter what the circumstances. Always spontaneous, he would look for any opportunity to lighten the mood and cheer up a forlorn human heart. Grant was an outstanding musician, actor, and lover of all things Alaskan. He died while serving with his Marine Corps reserve unit in Iraq, deeply mourned by those whose lives he blessed and touched. Nearly ten years later, his life is still remembered through the memorials that bear his name, the high school auditorium  where he performed (and which now is named for him), and the memories and stories of his friends, family members, and community. Grant was a ray of sunshine to so many and that warmth still remains in their hearts today. 

I see Marine Cpl. Michael Lasky. Almost ten years ago, I met Michael and his family at his homecoming when he returned with his unit from Iraq. Michael was a bundle of energy and had a great way of motivating and encouraging others. No task was too daunting to him, no problem too hard to be solved. His fellow Marines and his friends loved him for his can-do attitude and his fearless way of running toward danger in order to protect those he loved. A year after coming home from Iraq, he volunteered to go back and serve there. He ended up giving his life while on this deployment but, in the words of one of his fellow Marines, "he died doing what he loved." I am thankful that I got to briefly know this brave young man and that my life was one of the many that he touched in his short time on this earth. I miss him greatly and continue to remember him as the years roll on. 

 I see Army Spc. Shane Woods, another Alaskan who proudly joined the military to protect the ideals that were important to him. While still in high school, he wrote a paper describing himself as a Christian soldier. A year ago, I posted a piece about him titled, "Lasting Legacies," which described the incredible story of this godly young man. Shane wasn't always the most faithful Christian but, toward the end of his life, he began to take his beliefs more seriously than before. Soldiers who served with him still talk about the amazing way in which Shane would talk about his Savior. Shane had many things he wanted to do in this world, one of which included starting an orphanage in India. But he ended up going home to be with his Lord while serving in Iraq - long before he could accomplish these things. He did depart in peace, though, knowing that he was going to a far better place. I have been honored to get to know one of Shane's close friends in the last few years and, while I never met Shane, I never cease to be inspired by his love for God and his nation. 

 These faces you now see described here - they are more than just names on a roll call sheet, or engraved on a memorial for those who gave their lives. These were real people who loved this country enough to serve it and to sacrifice their lives for it. They loved you and me - their fellow Americans - enough that they took on the role of protector so that we would not have to do so ourselves! For this reason, Memorial Day takes on a personal meaning for me. It isn't just a day where we gather for barbecues and celebrate America -that is reserved for July 4th.  It isn't a day to thank the service members who are still living - that is reserved for Veterans Day and Armed Forces Day. Rather, it is a day to acknowledge and reflect on those courageous souls who "more than self their country loved and mercy more than life," as the song says. This is why I spend my Memorial Day every year out at the National Cemetery on the military base near where I live. That is where the true meaning sinks in for me, and I am reminded of the price of freedom. 
 Memorial Day should be a time of immense gratitude to those who have chosen to serve and who were willing to give "their last full measure of devotion," in the words of President Abraham Lincoln. They did it for their buddies fighting next to them; they did it for their loved ones at home; they did it for their communities and their friends. Even more, we are able to live the busy and productive lives that we do because of what they did on our behalf. That is something worth being thankful for and something that we should never take for granted. This Memorial Day, try to take a minute to pause and think about this sobering reality. Say a prayer for those left behind, and be grateful that such brave men have unselfishly done what they did. Their faces still grace the memory, and their actions and lives still inspire and warm the heart.