Twenty-two years ago this weekend Charles Palmer was looking forward to wearing the Buffalo Green gown and mortar with pride as part of the Manteca High Class of 1989.
By all accounts, the good-humored Palmer loved life. He proudly represented the Buffaloes as a running back on the football field, wrestled, ran track, and was a trumpet player in the band.
Palmer was proud to be a part of the Manteca High tradition.
He’s part of a different team now. A team that has paid a heavy price to assure that his son – and the rest of us – can be free.
That team is comprised of more than 850,000 men and women who have died serving America in combat.
You can catch a glimpse of Palmer in his Marine dress blues today at Woodward Park. Palmer’s photo plus nearly 60 of his fallen comrades in the War on Terror from the region are part of the Traveling Tribute that is engraved with the price of our freedom – the names of the fallen.
Nearby are the 6,000 simple white crosses representing sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, brothers, and sisters who have paid the ultimate price in Iraq and Afghanistan. In another time they could very well have flocked to a place like Woodward Park in the middle of a three-day weekend such as today to enjoy a picnic, watch as their kids gleefully scaled playground equipment or to play a quick game of pick-up hoops with friends.
Glance at the crosses and you have to ask yourself what kind of person gives up all of that to face death in some god-forsaken corner of the world?
You’ll hear the answer if you venture out to Woodward Park today. It won’t be in the speeches although they will be powerful and moving. It won’t be in displays of a military might whether it is in the form of C-130s in a missing man formation or in helicopter gunships.
Instead you’ll see it in people worshipping as they please during an outdoor church service. You’ll hear it in the laughter of children free to be children. You’ll see it in the faces of men and women who aren’t afraid to venture out.
You’ll notice it in the fact that people of all ethnicities and faiths can gather without fear of government reprisals.
Those who laid down their lives understood that preachers don’t give us freedom of religion, that reporters don’t give us freedom of the press, that poets don’t give us freedom of speech, that campus organizers don’t give us freedom to assemble, that lawyers don’t give us the right to a fair trial, and that politicians don’t give us the right to vote.
Our freedoms were secured – and have been preserved – by the citizen-soldier.
Palmer did not want to die nor did anyone else whose sacrifice is represented today at Woodward Park. Deep down every solider knows the price they may be asked to pay. It is something they accept not just out of a sense of duty and brotherhood with their fellow soldiers but because they understand that if someone was not willing to die it would give tyrants and evil the ability to snuff out the flickering candle of freedom and return the world back to the day where the elite were all equal and everyone else was chattel.
Palmer understood all of that when he made the decision to rejoin the Marines after being a civilian for 12 years following his first enlistment that started a year after he walked across the stage at Gus Schmiedt Field to receive his high school diploma. He wasn’t doing it for the money. He was doing it to be a part of something bigger than him and to do something important with his life.
On that fateful day in Iraq four years ago the 36-year-old Palmer volunteered to go on a combat mission in Anbar to replace the assigned gunner who had been injured. It was typical Palmer. His fellow Marines related how Palmer – upon hearing a fellow Marine was due to become a father and leave Iraq soon – insisted that his comrade go to the back so he could take over point.
Soldiers know all too well that war is hell.
But they also know that life would be hell for their loved ones, friends, and people they’ve never met if citizen-soldiers didn’t answer the call.
Each cross and each name on the panel you’ll see at Woodard Park is a somber reminder of the price that must be paid if we are to remain a free people.
All of us are forever indebted to the selfish sacrifices made by veterans who returned home alive and the 850,000 that didn’t.