A Thought That Won’t Leave Me This Memorial Day Morning
This isn’t about sports. There’s a sports component to it, which I honestly feel there is to most things in life, but if all you care to read here is sports, I politely invite you to move along.
It’s Memorial Day, and I woke up this morning with one thought in my head – Naval Chief Petty Officer Greg Billiter. It’s odd only in that Greg and I weren’t in any way close. He just happens to be the only person I ever knew personally who was lost in combat.
Greg (’87) was two years behind me (’85) at Covington Latin School, and it wasn’t that we weren’t close because I didn’t like him for some reason. He was a great guy, smart, funny, quick smile. We played basketball and soccer together in high school and ran in a lot of the same circles. Before his family left my parish, I had been good friends with his older brother in grade school. Greg was an extraordinarily likable guy. But I honestly didn’t even know he was in the military (had been for 15 years) when I received a text in April 2007 from a co-worker who was married to one of his good friends from Latin School that Greg had been killed in Iraq.
Greg, like former First State Financial Sunday Morning Sports Talk producer Troy “Hurt Locker” Wall, was in Explosive Ordinance Disposal in the Navy. He kept explosives left by enemies from killing or injuring friendly forces and civilians. He was killed with two other members of his unit when a rocket struck his vehicle in a convoy. He was on his third combat tour.
The honest truth is that in what has stretched into 11 years of fighting, we have been faced with very little in the way of Americans killed in combat comparatively. Some of that is because wars are fought differently than they were the last time we were involved in an extended conflict, some is due to the overwhelming superiority of our forces and some is due to the fact that we now save many military personnel who would have been killed in previous conflicts – salvaging human life from disaster. You could easily have gone through the last 11 years and not personally known one person lost in Iraq or Afghanistan. And the reports we receive here of killed and wounded seem oddly sanitized, distant and separate from us in a way.
Since receiving that text four years ago, Greg has served as a constant reminder to me that each one of the names I hear meant everything in the world to someone or many someones. I remember hanging out with his brother when we were kids. I remember how kind his mother and father (himself a Navy veteran) were to me when I spent the night at their house. I think of the wife and then three-year-old son he left behind. I remember to be thankful that a fraternity brother who fought with the Army in Panama, Haiti and Somalia always came home safely. I remember to be thankful that my brothers – both of whom joined the Navy at about the same time Greg did – have both returned from several trips to the Gulf unharmed. They had much safer jobs than Greg had, but for a while both flew off carrier decks and over the same combat area where Greg was lost.
I’ll be remember all of this again this weekend when more than 80 MPs from Fort Campbell come to Richmond, Ky., to participate in the Special Olympics Summer Games Opening Ceremonies as part of the Law Enforcement Torch Run. They (or at least whatever group of them isn’t deployed at the time) have been coming to the Games for many years, almost always with a check representing money they raised on base for Special Olympics. Based on past experience, they will look roughly like babies — every one of them so young, and all sure to have been deployed at one point or soon to be deployed. I don’t get to spend enough time with them to know their names or to know which ones who have taken to the time in the past to join us at Summer Games have been lost.
Often we hear sports described in the same terms as war. At the University of Miami, current NFL tight end Kellen Winslow once foolishly referred to himself as a soldier and before him, the Hurricanes once got off the plane for the Fiesta Bowl in fatigues. We refer to athletes as “warriors.” It’s an easy thing to do and I know I’ve probably done it more than I care to admit. But it’s important – especially on Memorial Day – to remember that they aren’t the same. They aren’t close. Unlike our military, our sports “heroes” are highly paid and at the end of whatever games will be played today will all return safely to their nice houses and their families.
That doesn’t mean that I don’t think sports are worthwhile or important. I obviously do. I just think it’s important to understand their place in the grand scheme of things. Sports is great fun. It can teach us great life lessons, but it’s not life and death.
Enjoy your Memorial Day, but please find someone, anyone, to spend a few minutes focusing on – somebody from your town, a friend, a relative someone in uniform you happen by – to remember, however briefly, what this day is about.