To the heroes

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Jeffrey L. Neuberger
  • 92nd Air Refueling Wing Chaplain
Gen. John P. Jumper, the Air Force Chief of Staff from 2001 to 2005, once said "The character of a country can be seen in the character of those who come forward to serve." 

In recognition of Veterans Day on Nov. 11, I would like to share an experience while deployed to Balad, Iraq, in the fall of 2006 which illustrates the character of those who serve.

The movie "Flags of Our Fathers," based on the book by James Bradley, had come to the Balad movie theater and several of us from the chapel staff decided to attend this first showing of the popular film depicting the raising of the American flag(s) at Iwo Jima and the men who were involved in that historic event.

We decided to get to the theater early, believing this film would be popular among the 26,000 or more Airmen, Soldiers and Marines stationed in Balad. As we arrived, the parking lot was full of Humvees, trucks and other vehicles. We stood in line with dozens of servicemembers, most of them shouldering weapons. We barely found seats as the theater was filled to capacity (more than 300).

When I visit a movie theater in the States I expect to see movie trivia, previews, advertisements, etc. Instead, we were treated to a short film on 'attack responses' and could hear fighter jets and helicopters flying overhead.

As the lights went down, we all stood for the national anthem. The theater was full of mainly young men, but some young women were present as well.

I was inwardly curious how high the testosterone "noise" meter would climb during the battle scenes. To my surprise, there was near silence. Three times there was laughter, but it was a natural and appropriate response to humor in the film.

One of our staff sat in the midst of Marines, who were almost reverent in their response to the film. The iconic Marine Memorial, the Iwo Jima statue which depicts the raising of the flag on Mount Suribachi, made several appearances during the film, which I'm certain had an effect on them - and certainly on us.

An important line at the end of the movie was almost spiritual, and in the context of that theater, immediate and real: "they fight for their country; they die for each other."

These Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines watch each other's back; they are 'Wingmen' for each other. I heard the stories from wounded soldiers in the hospital and I saw the small groups of soldiers who visited their buddies. When life is on the line and you depend on someone else to protect yours, it changes your perspective about each other. No doubt about it.

As the final credits rolled at the end of the movie there was the normal 'shuffling,' but again there was no talking. I expected the overpowering din of conversation but was amazed at the silence. The movie closed with a reflection by one of the characters about being a hero. He said "heroes don't create themselves, others create them; and we need them, at least the idea of those who perform noble acts."

I couldn't help think the same thoughts must be going through so many of those young minds, at least for a moment: "Am I heroic?"

In my mind I supplied my answer to that question: Yes, Marine, Soldier, Sailor, Airman, you are. You are the grandchildren and great grandchildren of those military men and women who, 65 years ago, stepped forward in the name of freedom and liberty and answered their nation's call, and now you're doing the same.

As an observation, this was just a large group of young people going to a movie; on reflection, it was more. As we stepped into the darkness to our vehicles, I could hear pockets of conversation among these men and women in uniform - discussing their thoughts and reflections on the movie, shouldering their weapons and shouldering their burden of service.

General Jumper's comment is worth repeating: "The character of a country can be seen in the character of those who come forward to serve."