Flags signal the start of the suffering

  • Monday, November 9, 2009 6:33pm
  • Opinion

By Don Brunell

Lowering our flags to half-staff seems to be an all too familiar sight across our nation these days. It is a solemn act that recognizes our fallen heroes, whether they be men and women in our armed forces or a Seattle police officer killed in the line of duty. It is a vivid reminder of the ultimate sacrifice made by those who serve us.

Unfortunately, after those flags return to the top of the pole and time passes, we tend to forget that the suffering for the friends and families continues. The loneliness, financial stress and emotional strain lives on. That is when those husbands, wives, sons, daughters and parents need our comfort and help the most. Too often, we don’t answer that call because we are too engrossed in our own daily lives.

Hopefully, this Veterans Day we will not only pause and remember but go the extra step to help those grieving families.

America’s war on terror is not likely to end soon. It won’t be won like World War II with a 175,000 man invasion in Normandy and a march across Europe to Berlin. Rather, it is a daily battle where the enemy mixes with civilians and ambushes people, explodes roadside bombs and drives vehicles packed with explosives into mosques, busy markets and military encampments.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001 attack, our country has been immersed in this war against terrorists. Al-Qaida, which coordinated a series of attacks on United States, lives on even though the fighting has moved offshore to the mountains of Afghanistan and the deserts of Iraq.

And as the war wages on, the casualties continue. We pause to watch the returning flag-draped coffins and hear about wounded soldiers, then we go about our day. But in far too many instances, their suffering and anguish lasts for years.

Consider the story of Father Tim Vakoc. Fr. Vakoc, a Catholic priest, was severely injured in a roadside bomb attack in Iraq in May 2004. He was returning from saying Mass in the field when shrapnal from the explosive ripped through his vehicle and lodged in his brain.

Vakoc, who grew up near Minneapolis, became a U.S. Army Chaplain in 1996. After assignments in Germany and Bosnia, he had a brief stop at Ft. Lewis before heading to Iraq in 2003.

I met Fr. Vakoc at the Main Post Chapel and got to know him briefly. Just before he was deployed, we went to a Mariners game. We talked about taking in another game when he returned to the states, but then lost touch.

After he was wounded, his family kept a vigil at his bedside. After five years in a coma, he miraculously awoke and appeared on the road to recovery. He regained limited use of his hands and could navigate his motorized wheelchair. Through a tracheotomy, he regained a limited ability to speak and could communicate with his eyes, nod his head and use hand gestures – things we take for granted.

Then on June 20, he unexpectedly died. Fr. Vakoc is the only military chaplain to die in Iraq.

Fr. Vakoc is but one of thousands of similar stories. Unfortunately, we can’t wave a magic wand and make the terrorists disappear. The reality of today’s world is there will be more attacks on Americans, innocent civilians and people of all faiths.

Our countrymen and women will continue to don the military uniforms of our country and put themselves in harm’s way. The tragic truth is more will die and suffer lifelong injuries and disabilities. We must not forget the sacrifices they make to keep us safe and free.

So while Nov. 11 will come and go, as will Memorial Day, hopefully we will not only pause to remember but commit to support and befriend our troops and their families. It is the least we can do.

Don Brunell is the president of the Association of Washington Business.

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