Thank You for Your Service Sir!

I try not to live with regret…at least to the degree that it keeps me from moving forward. I believe no one else should either. I’ve preached that as well. But living it out is another thing altogether. That said, regret can also have a positive trait, in that it can motivate you to learn from your past and change your behavior. I have a few of those types of regret in my life.

One of those regrets is never telling my Uncle Clinton “thank you” for his service to our country before he died in 2000. It’s not that I wasn’t grateful, it’s just that I never took the opportunity to tell him that. At the age of 18, my dad’s brother was drafted into World War II. Their father (my grandfather) had fought in the savagery of World War I and lived to tell about it. He was one of the few in our area to come home from that war. My dad still has much of the memorabilia his father brought home from World War I, including the bullets he used to fire at opposing forces, and the small Bible he carried with him everywhere he went.

Clinton, my uncle, was drafted into the Army as an infantryman to fight in World War II. He was following the legacy of his father before him. Because of the sharp shooting skills he learned in our hometown of Waxhaw, NC while shooting squirrels, Clinton was trained and fought as a sniper in the war. My dad recalls memories from his childhood of their parents gathered around the radio each night for updates from the war where Clinton was fighting. He recalls watching military vehicles drive up to the other houses in town to inform parents that their child had been killed in the war. He remembers the tension it brought to their family, as time would stand still, and they would watch those cars drive into town, and they would hope against all hope that the cars would never pull up in their driveway.

A few years later, when the war had come to a slow end, my dad tells the story of walking into the Waxhaw Barber Shop one day to get a haircut, and there sat his brother Clinton, unannounced and finally home from the war. Not exactly a heroes’ welcome. My dad always said that Clinton returned home a different man than he left. He described him as “harder” to the things of this world.

My Uncle Clinton came home and built a life after the war. He got married, but he and his wife Lois never had kids. Maybe he never wanted to bring kids into the world he had seen. He loved to fish and he loved growing tomatoes in his garden. He showed up to our house every Christmas Day morning with a tomato that he would cut to have with breakfast. I still remember the one Christmas Day he and my dad spent two hours hooking up my brand new Atari 2600 to my black and white television set. I watched with great anticipation as they did all of this with mere pocket knives. He called our house every Christmas Eve to tell us that Santa had just left Charlotte and was on his way to Waxhaw. This of course sent us scurrying off to bed with great excitement! Clinton also showed up to church every Sunday morning at Waxhaw UMC, fourth row back on the left. They drove 30 minutes from Charlotte just to get to church every week.

I learned much from my Uncle Clinton. But the one thing he never spoke of was the war. The only thing my dad said he ever got out of him was a story about sleeping in a snowy foxhole one Christmas Eve, while hearing men sing Christmas songs around him. The other was a story about lying still in a foxhole with his rifle cocked while German tanks rode right over the foxhole. Somehow he couldn’t relive the horror he had experienced. Being a sniper, I have no doubt he saw many die beside him and likely at his own hands as well. I can’t imagine recounting the terror of coming up on a Nazi Concentration Camp from the holocaust and realizing what was actually happening.

I never took the opportunity to salute him and tell him “thank you” while he was alive, a regret I still have to this day. That is why every time I am in Waxhaw, I go by his grave, stand, salute, and say “thank you,” then I walk across the field to my grandfather’s grave and do the same. I know they’d never ask for or expect that, but it only seems right. It’s why I still put my hand over my heart and get chills when the flag is raised. It’s why I still get teary-eyed when I hear “God Bless the USA” played every Independence Day. It’s why I worship with the force and passion that I worship with when I gather with other believers. It’s even why I don’t spend much time arguing with people who choose to express their freedoms differently than I do. It’s why I still pray for our nation daily.

Yes, like any nation, our nation has a difficult and imperfect history. But I still believe in and love our nation. Like my own difficult and imperfect history, I choose not to dismantle or erase it, but learn from it. Yes, I’m a citizen of Heaven above anything else, but I’m still proud to be an American.

There may not be any parades, fireworks shows, or large gatherings this Independence Day. But Lord willing, you’ll still find me in the same place as every 4th of July, standing over the grave of a man who fought for our freedom, saluting and saying “thank you,” and then offering a fervent prayer for this land to the One who secured our ultimate freedom on a cross. In the hot July sun…pause, stand straight, hand to forehead, chin up, breathe in, nine words, “Thank you sir”, “Thank you Jesus”, “Help us Lord.” Hand down, wipe away tear, repeat…as long as I live.