The number of dead Americans in Iraq passed 4,000 this week. It was almost lost in the midst of the Easter holidays. I only knew one of those 4,000, but it changed my view of the families that have lost, the soldiers who fight and the awful cost of war.
The soldier I knew was named Jeremy. I don’t know what number he was in terms of the death toll or what his dog tag numbers were, though I remember them hanging on the side of his flag-draped casket.
I knew him to be a man of dignity and quiet strength. The last time I saw him was at the wedding of his close friend. When I spoke to him it was always: “Yes Sir” and “No Sir.” It made me feel old. I almost asked him to call me Ed, but I knew that would pain him greatly.
At Jeremy’s funeral I tried to put the Iraqi death toll in perspective. It pales compared to the 50,000 plus we lost in Vietnam or the half million lost in World War II and is nowhere close to the toll that the Civil War took on a much smaller country. Four thousand is a small number compared to death-by-automobile every year. It is almost imperceptible compared to cancer or heart attack, and yet that number still looms large. It looms large because each number represents a person. One of those numbers was Jeremy.
It was duty that drew him to the conflict. It was not bloodlust or the desire for fame or glory. He told his family: “What if no one took their responsibility seriously? Someone must go.” And so he went–on his father’s birthday. His father left Killeen with the strange feeling that he would never see him again. He never did.
They brought Jeremy home on his mother’s birthday, right after Christmas of 2007. She was there when the men dressed in green came by the home to deliver the awful news. For just a moment she thought it was her son coming home for a Christmas surprise. When she saw two sets of legs she knew the news was bad. I was there when the men came back. Movies do not do that scene justice. I have never felt such pain as I did that day.
Jeremy’s parents came to sunrise service this Easter morning. The service was held outdoors at the foot of a huge cross. It was easier to come to this service than going back into the worship center that had held their son’s casket a few months ago at the funeral service.
I spoke of death and life and the resurrection. I told the story of a rural church that gathers near the cemetery at the church. They face east and hold hands in the hope and belief that Christ will return on Easter. They gather near the cemetery so they can watch their ancestors rise from the grave.
I wondered if my words gave them hope or if they even heard what I said at all. Pain is so deafening at times like these. After the service I held them and we all cried. I had nothing of value to say except, “I love you” and “I am so sorry”.
The death toll passed 4,000 in Iraq this week. That is not a political number for me. It is a personal number. My friend Jeremy was one of those numbers. Why do I write this? To remind us all that whenever someone dies in war that a mother loses her baby boy and a father loses a son. A brother lost his only brother.
Jeremy never said “I do” and never changed a son’s or daughter’s diaper.
Lest we forget.
Ed Hogan is pastor of Jersey Village Baptist Church in Houston.