Honoring Those Who Paid Ultimate Sacrifice

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I met Cody Norris a few times at holiday gatherings of my wife’s extended family, most of who live in Northeast Texas. He was tall and thin, clearly in shape. Cody was my sister-in-law’s nephew. He grew up in the Houston area. He clearly loved the chance to spend time in the country. We considered him one of the cousins, though that is not technically accurate. Cody usually showed up with his dad at the East Texas farm that served as the outside gathering spot when the weather is tolerable. These throw-downs invariably involved a fish fry, a bonfire if there was even a hint of chill in the air. There was always an impressive display of weaponry to fire at targets and soda cans, four-wheelers — and, for some, deer hunting when in season and wild hog hunting any time someone spotted one of those pests.

Cody was a polite young man who enjoyed hunting there with his dad and brother, firing off weapons, and hanging out with his extended family. Like his older brother Michael, he chose the military life. Michael attended West Point while Cody enlisted in the Army. Michael is now an officer after graduating from the academy.

Cody was a 240B Gunner deployed to Afghanistan. He left for Afghanistan in April 2011, about six months shy of his 20th birthday. On Nov. 9, 2011 — five years ago last Wednesday — he was killed while on patrol. Another family was heartbroken. This time it was a family that I have joined, and it is people that I love who were grieving. A grandmother, parents, aunts and uncles, cousins, still mourn the loss of one who died too young. Cody was killed not quite a month after turning 20 years old, serving in a war that lasted more than half his life.

I wrote a version of this piece a few days before Veterans Day five years ago, late one evening because I couldn’t sleep, haunted by how Cody’s death forever changed the lives of these folks to whom I’m now connected. They are surviving this loss because we don’t really have much choice when tragedy shows up uninvited. We deal with it best we can.  And they surely took solace that Cody died in the service of his country. I think the term “hero” is used a bit loosely these days. But surely it applies to those who volunteer to serve our country in combat and die doing so, no matter the political arguments flying back and forth on whether we should continue to fight these wars or not. The soldiers do what soldiers do — obey orders and fight for our country.

NPR ran a week-long series of stories in October of that year about the terrible losses taken by one platoon, and the effect it had on the families of those killed or wounded. A young wife who gave birth to the couple’s child a few weeks after her husband died in Afghanistan. A soldier who came home maimed and unable to find work. It was nearly impossible to drive, heading home from work, and listening to these stories.

Then tragedy suddenly came home to people I love. I had no words other than the usual condolences they had already heard far too often in those early days. We all tend to say the same thing, because we don’t know what else to say.

Five years later, we are still all heartsick this happened. I am glad I got to meet a fine young man who volunteered to fight to protect this country. I am glad to have met his brother and said hello to him last week at a family wedding. I continue to pray for peace. Five years later, Americans are still dying in Afghanistan and Iraq. And so are uncounted civilians of those countries.

On Veterans Day, we honor the valor of men and women like Cody Norris. And my dad, who served in the Korean conflict, and my youngest brother Gregg, who served a dozen years as a Marine. And my late father-in-law, who served in the Air Force during the Korean conflict. His brothers also served in the military.

To quote Lincoln at Gettysburg, “It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.”

I thank all veterans for their service, today and always.


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