More than 300 people crowded the sun-drenched grass in front of Payson’s war memorial Monday morning facing fitful breezes and painful memories to honor those who have died in the nation’s wars.
Since the Revolutionary War, more than 840,000 Americans have died in combat, including more than 3,000 Arizonans. That includes some 6,000 in combat deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan
Some 1.3 million have died from all causes related to their wars.
The solemn gathering in the brilliant sunshine on Monday bore witness to the toll of war and the urgent hope that so great a sacrifice should secure peace.
Payson Mayor Kenny Evans recalled through tears his childhood friend, Eddie, who went off to Vietnam as Evans headed off to college. Eddie never returned, but Evans recalled that his friend’s dog, Buddy, went out to meet the school bus every day at 3:05 as long as he lived.
“Buddy never gave up his vigil, but it only took my generation 20 years to forget the sacrifice that people made in Vietnam. I want to thank you — thank you for not forgetting.”
Police Chief Don Engler came to the microphone moved by the sound of the giant American flag raised to half mast, rustling in the intermittent breezes that cooled the upturned faces of the intent audience sitting in the strengthening sun. The flag hung in banded folds for most of the ceremony, as though in mourning.
He said he found himself listening to the flapping of the flag, wondering what those who had died in service to their country would say in his place. “I think they would tell us to listen to those flags as they blow in the wind.”
He quoted Chief Tecumseh, the great Shawnee war leader, who said, “When you arise in the morning, give thanks for the food and for the joy of living. When it comes your time to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song and die like a hero going home.”
Payson Fire Department Battalion Chief Dan Bramble recounted the tale of one battle in Afghanistan, based on Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell’s account in his book “Lone Survivor.”
Luttrell’s four-man SEAL team was placed in a remote corner of Afghanistan to track down and capture a Taliban leader in 2005. As they moved into position, they came unexpectedly upon three Afghanistan goat herders, one of them a boy. The SEALs debated whether to kill the three civilians or let them go. One man voted to kill the civilians and protect the team and the mission. One voted to let them go. One abstained. Luttrell voted to let them go.
Barely an hour later, a Taliban group of somewhere between 20 and 150 fighters ambushed the SEALs, probably based on information from the freed goat herders. In a fierce firefight, Lieutenant Michael Murphy, Petty Officer Danny Dietz and Petty Officer Matthew Axelson died. Luttrell was badly wounded and fell off a steep mountainside, causing the Taliban to leave him for dead.
A Chinook helicopter with 16 rescuers hurried to the battle, but a rocket brought down the helicopter — killing everyone on board.
Badly wounded, Luttrell crawled some seven miles before a friendly Afghanistan villager found him. The villagers gave him shelter and refused to turn him over to the Taliban, despite threats. Another rescue mission drove off the Taliban encircling the village and rescued Luttrell. The Afghan elder who gave him sanctuary refused all reward and returned to his village.
Luttrell returned to write “Lone Survivor” and start the Lone Survivor Foundation, still tormented by dreams in which his men called out to him, dying, according to an interview with him published in the Washington Post.
Bramble focused on the moral courage of that decision to let the goat herders go, at such a terrible risk. “They showed the value of sacrifice for a noble cause. I pray we will live our lives in a way that honors their sacrifice.”
The hour-long ceremony came to an end with military precision and the haunting sound of “Taps” from the bugler on the green and peaceful hillside. Then the bagpipes moaned “Amazing Grace.”
At just that moment, the wind came up across the hill, across the lake, across the stillness, making the flags whisper all their names, drying the sweat and the tears alike.