Death of a soldier is a stab in the heart

Posted: Friday, May 11, 2007

"Johnny comes marching home again, Hurrah! Hurrah!" has been a stirring anthem for close to 150 years, whether the soldier wore a blue cap or a round or curved steel helmet.

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These have been perilous times for the soldiers who serve on foreign shores, in Bosnia Kosovo, Lebanon, Sudan, Afghanistan or Iraq. In the last 15 years or so, many have given "the last full measure of devotion" to their country.

Sometimes, the political issue, whether to go to war or not, has been questioned,but the dedication and patriotism of our soldiers has been honored.

Let me share a vignette from the history of our time that I recently witnessed in Seattle. On a trip to Alabama waiting to board my plane, I noticed a crowd of well-wishers and men in uniform. I asked and was told that a contingent of troops was arriving. There was a four-piece army band playing various sized trombones. The military men were dressed in the desert camouflage attire, a light brown with darker spots. Wives and children waited expectantly.

The band played a couple of songs. One was "God Bless America." Then about 45 or so men marched off the plane. Just about everyone in the audience rose, including strangers waiting for their flights. About 300 people congregated together. As the men and women walked by everyone began to clap. The band played the Civil War song, "When Johnny comes marching home again, Hurrah! Hurrah!" There were a few tears shed.

I've read that this was a different experience from the Vietnam War days. Part of the problem then was that the soldiers were sent and returned in small groups and singly. The Army recognized the mistake and now troops move in company or battalion sized units. Also, the country has grown wiser and can separate the political decision making from the braveryof the men called to duty.

A death of a soldier is like a stab in the heart to all Americans. As Lincoln said, "the men who died here have hallowed this ground far beyond our poor power to add or detract."

• Lifelong Alaskan Elton Engstrom is a retired fish buyer, lawyer and legislator (1964-70) who lives in Juneau.

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