When I was growing up, all the boys played soldier. It was just the thing you did. War was everywhere: TV, movies, comic books. I remember lying awake at night, trying to imagine what it must be like.
Today, as a middle-aged man, I still can’t imagine.
I can’t imagine trying to sleep outside in all kinds of weather, on frozen ground in subzero temperatures, or in a jungle so hot and humid I can’t breathe, not knowing who or what is lurking in the darkness.
I can’t imagine trying to shoot someone before he can shoot me, not for anything we did to one another, but because we wear different uniforms and my government leaders told me I had to, the same as his told him.
I can’t imagine fighting a complete stranger hand-to-hand, doing whatever is necessary to win. At stake isn’t a pretty girl or a shiny medal to hang around my neck, but the chance to keep breathing – that’s what the loser will give up.
I can’t imagine jumping out of a burning airplane, thousands of feet in the air, as it plunges to earth, with God only knows what waiting for me below.
I can’t imagine trying to escape a sinking ship in the middle of the ocean – which kind of scares me, anyway – as more water than you ever knew existed rushes in like the very wrath of God. And then, if you should get out, treading waves that seem to go on forever, hoping someone can get to you before the sharks do or your arms give out.
I can’t imagine being held prisoner in filthy conditions by people who speak and think differently than me, who may beat me or starve me or do things I didn’t know one human being could even think of doing to another.
I can’t imagine what it’s like to return home without an arm or a leg or any of my other body parts. I can’t imagine spending the rest of my life in a wheelchair or confined to a bed, hooked up to tubes to keep me breathing.
I can’t imagine what it’s like to have nightmares or temporary blackouts because of what I’ve been through while those around me, although well-meaning, can’t understand or do anything to help.
I can’t imagine coming home and having people who have absolutely no idea what I went though judge me or call me derogatory names for something I may have done to survive, especially when they might have done the exact same thing themselves, or worse. Or what it would be like to see someone degrade the very flag I went through so much to defend.
I can’t imagine being in a place I never heard of, in unspeakable pain from a bullet or explosion I never saw coming, knowing I’m going to die before I have a chance to accept it or say goodbye to the people closest to me. All the time, I wonder where I am, what I am doing there and, most perplexing, what I ever did to deserve this?
I also can’t imagine what life would be like if it weren’t for those brave men and women who do know what those things are like. God bless them all.