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The Leadership Challenge: Honoring and Learning from the Sacrifices of Others

October 7, 2010

UPDATED MAY 16, 2011:
The celebrations since the killing of Osama bin Laden reminded me of a post I wrote last fall (2010) during a trip home through New England. Many of those celebrating have been young Americans, some of whom were just toddlers on September 11, 2001. What prompted me to repost what I wrote 8 months ago was to honor the thousands of young American and Canadian soldiers who have been killed and wounded in Afghanistan during the past decade. As you read this post, reflect on the sacrifices that our respective countries expect of their young people.

We were almost home after a 19-day, 2,200 mile car trip across New England; New Brunswick, Canada; and back home to Ottawa, Canada. We love travelling through the back country and into small town Canada and America, where pretentiousness is not in the vocabulary and where people talk straight. You want an opinion without the political correctness? Just ask someone in a local diner.

We had just eaten lunch at the Coffee Corner in Montpelier, Vermont (see my previous post). So here we were steaming north on I-89 in gorgeous Vermont, a state of extraordinary people who we’ve come to adore. Sue was driving while I was checking our route and taking some photos. As we were getting closer to our exit I noticed a fire truck and an ambulance parked on an overpass with an American flag between them. Hmmmm. Interesting I thought.

A few miles down the highway we saw this repeated on the next overpass. Then it hit me. I turned to Sue and said “I bet you that a local person in the military was killed in Afghanistan, and that they’re honoring their return home.”

The next several overpasses had dozens of people on top with American flags. When we made our exit, Sue stopped the car so that I could talk to some women carrying flags. Indeed, a funeral procession was not far behind us bringing home a serviceman who had been killed in Afghanistan.

A few miles onwards we entered the beautiful town of Swanton, Vermont. Along the main street were hundreds and hundreds of people holding flags. We parked our car and got out to learn more about what was taking place.

There were people everywhere. Grim-faced; holding onto one another; huddled together in small groups; talking quietly.

We happened to be situated near a town square where a number of veterans were organizing. But what nailed me between the eyes was how many young people were in attendance. I walked up to a fellow about my age to ask about the serviceman who had been killed. He had grown up in Swanton two blocks away and was only twenty. He had been in Afghanistan only a few months.

While I was talking to this gentleman, a young fellow about 15 years of age walked up to Sue and handed her an American flag. Sue turned to me and asked whether she should give it to someone. I said no, that we would take it home. It’s now on the shelf in my bedroom as a reminder of our drive through Swanton that September day.

When you randomly enter such an occurrence, you suddenly realize that all the competitive hype and vindictiveness practiced by politicians is light-years away from the reality of what war brings. Sue and I are so fortunate that we have four healthy adult children who are building their own careers. But our “kids” also have no concept of what it means to truly serve your country, to be sent halfway around the world to be in harm’s way in order to stabilize a volatile country with a long history of violence and turmoil.

Although the 20 year-old young man from Swanton, who I never met, is just one of many thousands of young Americans killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, his death is still a travesty. He never had the chance to form a family, hold a son or daughter in his arms, go to parent-teacher meetings, build a career; or contribute to his community over his lifetime. His death is a poignant reminder of just how fragile human life is and how important it is for each of us to leave a positive mark before we depart this planet.

What will be your mark?

All war is deception.
Sun Tzu

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. October 7, 2010 4:08 pm

    Thanks for your comment, Michael, and glad that my post had meaning for you.

  2. Ken Ferry permalink
    October 7, 2010 3:13 pm

    “Longevity has its place. But I not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

    I guess some “marks” are more important than others.

  3. Michael Robb permalink
    October 7, 2010 1:27 pm

    The recent blog discussing your trip across New England provided a spark to me personally. I actually grew up in Swanton where my father was the Principal/Superintendent of schools and my mother was a teacher. Vermonters have a sense of family cohesiveness within their towns and when a loved one is lossed, everyone within the community grieves.

    Thank you for reminding me how precious life is and bringing back pleasant memories of my childhood.


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