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Chester Powell and a Treasure Found at Robie Books

07.28.16 04:30 PM – Andy McDonald

Berea City Councilman Chester Powell recently concluded a public meeting by expressing hope the city would consider using a wall in the proposed City Hall building to memorialize Berea veterans who have served in combat. The wall would not just feature those who were killed, but veterans who bear the burden of fighting for their country overseas, then returning to America to put their lives back together.

As a Vietnam combat veteran, Powell perhaps spoke from experience when he observed that citizens just don’t understand the kinds of challenges veterans encounter when they return from war. People can say they understand, they can express their appreciation and their pride for men and women in uniform, but they can’t truly grasp the experience of fighting and dying unless they have seen it.

Powell’s remarks came not long after I finished a book I was lucky enough to stumble across at Robie Books in Berea. It’s the story of an Iraqi war veteran entitled Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.

The New York Times bestseller by Ben Fountain is not what I would call an easy book to read. If your politics lean right, it could be a source of irritation. But it’s compelling and very important in a time when it is increasingly easy to forget we’re at war, and that there are flesh-and-blood service men and women who bear the enormous burden of fighting for America, even when we’re not always conscious of that fact.

The main character, Billy Lynn, is honored with his army comrades at a Dallas Cowboys game, in which Lynn is besieged by a parade of well-wishers who seem to think they are doing their part in the war against terror by merely expressing their pride, cursing the dreaded terrorists, and vowing to pray for Lynn and the men in his unit.

Lynn remains polite throughout his many encounters with his fellow Americans at Texas Stadium, but the whole time he’s thinking that the people greeting him just don’t get it. They don’t understand what it is to constantly be on the razor’s edge during a combat patrol where they could get killed, then to come home to a world where for most people, the life and death of American soldiers is really of no immediate consequence. It’s an abstraction. It’s background noise on the evening news.

Proud Texans patted Lynn on the back and they ran their fingers over his Silver Star as if it was merely costume jewelry or a movie prop, but they never seemed to grasp that the medal was attached to something real, the result of people dying, including someone very dear to Lynn.

The author, Fountain, for me conveyed a powerful point. Texas Stadium seems representative of the United States of America. The things happening inside the stadium, the party atmosphere, have an air of unreality about them, completely disconnected and indifferent to the fact that men and women figuratively outside the stadium in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, are buffering the oblivious fans within from the world’s unpleasant realities.

People say they are so grateful to American servicemen and women who have volunteered to disrupt their lives, in part, to safeguard what we think of as freedom, but the truth is there’s really only so much gratitude we have to give. We want the luxury of just showing we are grateful by shaking a soldier’s hand, wearing our American flag lapel pins, then going back to far more important matters, such as watching the football game, getting plastered with our buddies on the 50 yard line, or the diversions of our sometimes rapacious and over-sexed culture, which in the book was symbolized by the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.

Perhaps spurred by having read Fountain’s grim but edifying book, I think Chester Powell has an interesting idea. Like Powell said, walls have to go up in the new city hall anyway, so what would be the harm in having one wall where people could walk by and, for an instant, remember their neighbors who gave up their time with their families, and in some cases, sacrificed their health and well-being, in service of our country?

A wall might help Bereans remember to be grateful, but maybe it would also plant the seed that we as Americans must do all we can to make sure that if our neighbors are to go on that wall, we must strive to insure it is for good reason, and that they are being well cared for and appreciated once they return home.

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