Honoring the price of freedom (by Billy Coffey)

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He sits across from me and there is silence, but it’s the sort of silence that comforts rather than makes you tick off the seconds until you can leave. It’s the same look with him, always the same look—a grizzled face worn by time and living, deep eyes that have seen too much, and a bulge of chewing tobacco in his left cheek.

The tobacco always makes me wonder. Not that he uses it; most every male here chews or dips or smokes, even some of the ladies. What makes me wonder is how it gets from the pouch to his mouth.

I stare down at his hands, now resting on the top of the table. His thumbs are gone. The pinkies and ring fingers of each hand are fused together, forming one large clump of smooth, pink flesh. Both second fingers are wrapped around his forefingers in a mangled cross-my-heart-hope-to-die way. His hands have been that way for thirty years, fused and mangled and scarred.

He’s never told me how they got that way, and I’ve never asked. Didn’t have to. As a child, I was told he’d jumped on a hand grenade to save his friends. He picked it up with both hands to throw it back, and it exploded.

He always kept his hands in his pockets when around me back then. I remember the first time he took them out and patted me on the shoulder. I was a kid, maybe eight, but I understood what that act meant. I honored it. I still do.

“He ain’t goin’ to Arlington this year,” he says to me. “He” being the President. The man sitting across from me won’t say his name. He says it hurts too much.

I say nothing. I’m not supposed to. There are conversations you are a part of and conversations you’re there only as a witness. I am a witness. That’s fine with me.

“It ain’t right, what he’s doin’. I know he don’t like the military none.” He points one mangled hand at me and says, “But you know what? I don’t give a damn. Us vets are used to part of this country hating us, calling us killers and worse. That’s their right.”

I offer a weak nod. It’s true. They have that right.

“But you know why they have that right?” he asks. “Because we gave it to ’em. We did. Not the politicians or the professors. We bled for it. Died for it. And then we come home like this,

(both hands now, in front of me)

and we don’t ask for nothin’. But it sure as hell would be nice if he’d postpone his vacation long enough to thank us for giving him a country to run.”

He spits into his bottle. It’s an angry spit. A sad spit. Then he settles back into his chair and sighs.

“Know what I think?”

I do. I always have. But I don’t say so, because he needs to say it and I need to hear it and a part of me thinks we all do.

“I think this country is the best there is. I think it was built by God himself to keep this world together. To be a place of freedom, of right. People don’t say that much anymore. They’d rather talk about how wrong we’ve been. And they’re right, you know. We’ve been wrong before. Lotsa times. But that don’t make the right less so. It’s us the world looks to when things go to hell. And when it does—and you know it will—who will they call to stand in the breach? Congress? The President? No. They call us.”

He spits once more.

“And you know what, son? It don’t matter if he’s there to lay that wreath and honor the fallen. Not one damn bit. Because whether he’s there or not, whether we’re hated or loved, when they call us, we’ll answer.”

To read more from Billy Coffey, visit him at his blog What I Learned Today and follow him on twitter at @BillyCoffey

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21 Responses to “Honoring the price of freedom (by Billy Coffey)”

  1. Glynn May 31, 2010 at 12:39 am #

    The grizzled friend is right — it really doesn’t matter whether the Prsident goes to Arlington cemetery of not.

    But it’s still wrong.
    .-= Glynn´s last blog ..Because It Matters =-.

  2. Kathleen May 31, 2010 at 12:51 am #

    .-= Kathleen´s last blog ..How a Day Stays =-.

  3. Peter P May 31, 2010 at 1:01 am #

    I’m not Military material but I sure do respect those who are willing to stand in the gap, who will always answer when they hear the call to arms.

    Thank you, everyone who has served to give us the freedom we so enjoy.
    .-= Peter P´s last blog ..How to Backup your WordPress Site =-.

  4. jasonS May 31, 2010 at 2:19 am #

    Thanks for the story. God bless this man and all like him who have given so much. I am so grateful…
    .-= jasonS´s last blog ..Weekend Look Back =-.

  5. Eric May 31, 2010 at 8:16 am #

    When you see him again please give him our utmost and most appreciative thanks. As he said, it is because of him and many others that we enjoy the freedoms we do – the good and the bad…

    Thank you Billy for your wonderful prose…
    .-= Eric´s last blog ..The Articulation of Eating =-.

  6. Louise May 31, 2010 at 8:22 am #

    I’m Canadian so can sit on the border and watch and not speak.

    Powerful post though Billy — and I love the realization that there are some conversations we’re part of and some we’re just there to witness — WOW!
    .-= Louise´s last blog ..Informed action =-.

  7. Lynn Mosher May 31, 2010 at 9:39 am #

    Billy-boy, Every time I read your stories, I know I will be blessed. And this time was no different. I don’t understand not honoring those who have fought in the past and those who are fighting now for people they do not know, even to the point of having a mangled body for the rest of their lives or giving up those lives altogether. Freedom is too precious not to honor those who gave it to us! Please give your friend my heartfelt thanks for his service. Thank you, Billy. Be blessed!
    .-= Lynn Mosher´s last blog ..All the Empty Chairs =-.

  8. Rebekah @ It Only Gets Better May 31, 2010 at 10:10 am #

    Tell him, “Thank you.” from me and my family. For everything.

  9. Richard Mabry May 31, 2010 at 10:11 am #

    Powerful post, and one that says what needs to be said much more eloquently than I can. I served in the military–never saw a shot fired in anger, but proud to be a part of the group of men and women who were there serving a significant purpose.

    I am aware that other Presidents have skipped the ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery. I recognize the symbolism, and accept the fact that it can and should be repeated throughout our nation, but somehow I wish the nation’s Commander in Chief would be front and center just outside Washington this Memorial Day. Then again, maybe it’s appropriate that he lay his wreath at a cemetery named for the President who agonized over a nation divided.

    Thanks so much for sharing this.

  10. Joyce May 31, 2010 at 11:29 am #

    God bless him and the many more like him. I’d love to give him a hug today. My dad is buried in Arlington…I’ve been there many times and wrote about it on my own blog this weekend.

    I know other Presidents have skipped for various reasons but as I say (too often lately), just because something has been done in the past by someone else, doesn’t make it the right thing to do. Personally I don’t know why any President would skip the honor that is theirs in the laying of the wreath.
    .-= Joyce´s last blog ..Some Gave All =-.

  11. Jeff Jordan May 31, 2010 at 11:47 am #

    I was just in D.C. last week with my youngest son. We saw lots of veterans, especially around the WWII memorial…not sure he (or most of us for that matter) understands the sacrifice of so many.

    Differing political perspectives notwithstanding, we all owe a great debt to men like him. What people like him believe and think should account for something…should account for a lot.

    Thanks Billy. I’m going to read this post to our kids tonight.
    .-= Jeff Jordan´s last blog ..By the Dawn’s Early Light. =-.

  12. Candy May 31, 2010 at 12:13 pm #

    Thank you, Billy. No, it doesn’t matter if the President went. But it shocks me that he wouldn’t want to. To me, it would be an honor to be on that sacred ground, placing the wreath. It just doesn’t change anything about your friend or any of our other veterans. God bless them for their sacrifices.
    .-= Candy´s last blog ..Tasty Bites: Grilled Vegetables with Sausage and Penne =-.

  13. Maureen May 31, 2010 at 12:59 pm #

    My father was part of the famous Merrill’s Marauders, an all-volunteer group that served in the hell of China, Burma, and India in WWII. One of the few in that group who came back alive, my father now lies in peace on a hill at Arlington. For me, it’s enough that he’s there. He never needed speeches, and I don’t them need them either.
    .-= Maureen´s last blog ..Blue Star Museums Initiative =-.

  14. Jeanne Damoff May 31, 2010 at 3:03 pm #

    Wow. I add my thanks to those already expressed and pray God’s grace and peace for your heroic friend.

  15. Stephany May 31, 2010 at 3:18 pm #

    Poignant and powerful, thanks for this Kat and Bill.

    I live with a vet who spent years avoiding Rememberance Day Ceremonies because after years in the service of one hell hole after another he felt most the scars of the public spitting venom toward soldiers. Our previous government did the equivalent by starving military of funds, pensions, and equipment. This year he finally applied for his Vet card, joined the Canadian legion and went to the ceremony as a vet. He stood in front of the Prime Minister, Prince Charles, and the Governor General in uniform saluting vets and witnessed how total strangers young and old appreciated our troops and expressed gratitude toward him personally.

    Take Heart~ The public and media may spit venom now out of fear or anger, and politicians may play coy, but eventually a populations learns how to be grateful…and IT DOES MATTER when they do.
    .-= Stephany´s last blog ..Get Free Publicity & Media Buzz using YouTube Moderator for Viral Video =-.

  16. Wendy May 31, 2010 at 3:34 pm #

    I guess I shouldn’t be shocked that the president can’t be bothered with going to Arlington, but it sure ticks me off.

    So glad you get to spend time with a real-life hero, Billy. And thanks for sharing him with us.
    .-= Wendy´s last blog ..How’s your memory? =-.

  17. susie @newdaynewlesson June 1, 2010 at 7:21 am #

    Beautiful, heartfelt and powerful.
    .-= susie @newdaynewlesson´s last blog ..The Kindness Club: Week 8 =-.

  18. A Simple Country Girl June 1, 2010 at 10:33 am #

    Oh, indeed it is wrong. But I tell you what, that feeling of betrayal spawned by that man in office, it deepens my resolve to do & say & stand for what is right and righteous. And I cry, I cry as I read this.

    For the girl who grew up not knowing her daddy because of his sacrifice in Vietnam. I cry because I would like to hug that man across from you, touch his mangled parts with my fingers and tears. Because I wonder if anyone remembers how my daddy died over and over again in the air. I have his flight jacket. But that is all. No, actually, it is not all, I have his blood surging through my veins.

    I honor your friend. I do.


    (Katdish, thank you for this place…)
    .-= A Simple Country Girl´s last blog ..When Leaves Cry =-.

  19. *~Michelle~* June 1, 2010 at 6:08 pm #

    wow…..this was a powerful read.

    Thank you for sharing your friend with us. He is the ultimate hero. The next time you see him, tell him thank you from me, will ya? thanks, Billy.
    .-= *~Michelle~*´s last blog ..Agape Love =-.


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