My innocence of war and death was lost forever one rainy afternoon in 1971 when I was 15. I found my mom in tears — she had just learned that her brother had been seriously wounded in Vietnam.
Before that day, war was something that was on the news, not something that personally affected me or those I loved. My uncle survived, but I never forgot the fear, hopelessness, pride and reverence that remained in that treasured place in my heart.
Fast-forward 30 years. It’s another cold, rainy day; I’m standing on the flight line ramp at Ramstein AB, Germany, along with 100 other military personnel. We’re waiting to welcome home 11 warriors. The air is not joyous. These fellow fighters will not walk off the plane to greet their welcoming party — they will be carried off in flag-draped coffins. We do not know their names, where they were from or whose son, father, husband, or brother they might be. We know only that they unselfishly gave their lives for the beliefs and values of our great nation. Every one of us were honored to stand for hours in pouring rain to proudly salute the life, courage and sacrifice of those we can now never meet.
As the senior enlisted Air Force person in Europe from 2000 to 2003, I was honored and humbled to often accompany wounded personnel on medical transport aircraft. Some could walk onto the plane; most could not. These brave souls were often missing arms, legs, hands, fingers, eyes and even parts of their head or face. What struck me most as I visited with these heroes was not what was missing on their bodies but what was missing in their attitude.
There was no talk of anger, regret, fear or pity. No one was overly concerned with his or her personal situation; they knew instinctively that they would be OK somehow. What concerned them most were buddies and units left behind. They worried that they could no longer help, or that their units were now short another crucial team member. Over and over I heard the same question: “How soon can I go back?” I often had to ask myself, “Where/how do we build these heroes?” I also asked myself many times, “Am I worthy?”
I wore a uniform proudly for 30 years. As a woman, I could never fight on the front lines. No one in my family or even a close friend ever died as a result of war. Was I really worthy to count myself as one of them?
I finally understand the answer to that question. If we remember and honor the sacrifices of those who served, if we honor their families and if we honor the values and country for which they died, each of us is worthy. We are worthy because we will never forget what these patriots and their families have given up for others.
I intend to always stay worthy — and remember. We don’t have to know their names to honor their memory.
Vickie Mauldin retired from the United States Air Force in 2004 after 30 years, serving her two final tours as Command Chief Master Sergeant for United States Air Forces in Europe and Air Force Materiel Command. The mission of First Command Educational Foundation (FCEF) is to educate those who serve. Learn more on Facebook: http://on.fb.me/xFbCgs .