When my father-in-law passed away in 2011, being that he was a World War II veteran he was interred at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio. While we were there, my wife and I took some time to walk around the cemetery and we took note of the dates on some of the headstones. We saw graves of soldiers that dated as far back as the Spanish American War, and even though Fort Sam did not officially become a military cemetery until 1926, I’m told there are some graves there that date back even further.
Many of the graves were those of military veterans like my father-in-law, men and women who served our country and lived many years after their discharge from the military. But we also saw many graves of young men, boys actually, who had been killed in action in the two world wars and in Korea and Vietnam. I saw graves of young men from World War II who were as young as 17 and 18 when they were killed. A lot of young men in those days lied about their ages to get into the military. Some dropped out of high school to join. I’m guessing their families made certain their true dates of birth were made known when they were laid to rest. You don’t see quite as many graves of boys that young when you get to where the soldiers who were killed in action in Korea and Vietnam are buried, since the military had tightened up its age verification processes by then. But there were still plenty of graves of young men who were only 19 or 20 or 21 when they died.
And in the newer section, where my father-law-law is buried, we saw the grave of a young lady who was in her early 20’s when she was laid to rest. On her headstone were these very simple words: Killed in Action in the service of Her Country. Judging from the date of death, she was either killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. There were a couple of other graves of female soldiers there also. One was a veteran from the Vietnam era and the other also died sometime during the war in Iraq.
As we walked around the cemetery that day, it struck me that the place where we were walking was hallowed ground. As the final resting place of veterans and of many young men and women who paid the ultimate price to protect the freedoms that we all too often take for granted, it’s a place of honor. And in that moment, a passage from the book of Exodus came to mind. When Moses saw the burning bush, he went to take a closer look at this strange site, a bush that was on fire but was not being consumed. As he drew near, God spoke to him and said, “Do no come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” In that day, removing one’s shoes was done as a sign of respect, just as we remove our caps or hats to show respect in our time. That’s why God instructed Moses to remove his sandals. It was a show of respect and also an act of submission. The ground itself was made holy by God’s presence.
While the grounds of our national military cemeteries are not holy in the same sense as the place where Moses stood in the presence of God, they are special places of honor in their own right and the men and women who are buried in those places are worthy and deserving of our respect and gratitude, as are all veterans, past, present, and future. The shameful way servicemen were treated during the Vietnam era can never be repeated. Regardless of whether we agree or disagree with the policies of our leaders and politicians that send them into battle, the men and women of our armed forces deserve our respect.
All throughout our history, American soldiers and sailors have fought and sacrificed to preserve our freedoms. In one of his Memorial Day sermons, Dr. W.A. Criswell told the story of a young American soldier at the end of the second world war as he was being unloaded on a gurney from a troop transport ship in New York harbor. His widowed mother was there to greet the ship and somehow, in all of the confusion, she managed to locate her son on the dock shortly after he was carried of the ship. She had learned only a short time before that her son had lost both arms and legs, and was blind.
She looked upon her son, horrified at his injuries, and through her sobbing she said, “This horrible war. You can’t see. You can’t stand. You can’t even hug your own mother. This horrible war took everything from you”
“No mom.” the soldier replied, “No one took anything from me. I gave it away.”
As I read that sermon transcript, I was reminded of the 10th chapter of John. Jesus was preaching to the crowds in Jerusalem and said to them, “The reason my father loves me is that I lay down my life-only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”
Whether the young soldier was a Christian or not, Dr. Criswell did not say. But his attitude reflected that of Jesus Christ! No one took his arms and legs and eyes. He gave them of his own accord. The men and women of that era are called ‘The Greatest Generation’ for a reason.
And in his sermon titled, “Is War in God’s Will?” Criswell preached these words in honor of the soldier:
Poring through the pages of the Bible, there is something you cannot help but notice in the New Testament. It is this: wherever a soldier appears in the record, he appears in appreciation and in commendation. There is no exception to it.
In the preaching of John the Baptist in the Jordan River, it was the Roman soldiers present who were repenting and baptized of John in the Jordan. Five Roman centurions appeared in the story of the first Christian preaching of the gospel.
One is a centurion in Capernaum who had built a synagogue for the Jewish nation, and of whom our Lord said: “I have not found such faith, no, not in Israel as in this Roman centurion”
A second was the Roman centurion who under law presided over the execution and crucifixion of our Lord, and as he saw the frame and heard the words of the Lord Jesus, he said, “This man is none other than the Son of God!”
It was in the home of a Roman centurion named Cornelius in Acts 10 that the Gentile Pentecost was poured out upon the earth. It was a Roman centurion by the name of Claudius Lysias, who, in Acts 23, saved the apostle Paul from death. And it was a Roman centurion in Acts 27 named Julius, who for the sake of Paul, spared all the prisoners who sought life in the escape from the shipwreck on the isle of Malta.
Without exception, all of the soldiers that appear in the New Testament appear with appreciation and commendation. And by inspiration, the apostle Paul wrote of the power of the state to defend itself: “Rulers are not a terror to good, but to evil. Wilt thou not then be afraid of the power? For he beareth not the sword in vain: he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon them that doeth evil”.
The power of the sword in the hand of the state is an ordination of God. And we cannot forget that the whole Christian empire was largely evangelized by Roman soldiers who carried the message of Christ everywhere.
We also cannot forget that our strength and hope lies not in our armies, and not in our navies, and not in our atomic bombers, not even in our political processes. But our deliverance and our strength lies in the hand of Almighty God.
Each Memorial Day, we pay tribute to the men and women who paid the ULTIMATE price to protect our freedoms. Never forget; freedom comes at a price. But as honorable as their sacrifices were; and we owe our fallen warriors a great debt, there was a sacrifice that was far greater than that of any soldier who gave his life on a battlefield. Billy Graham once said that the blood of Jesus was the very life of God. Jesus’ sacrifice at Calvary not only bought our freedom from the bondage of sin, the blood of Jesus purchased our souls for all eternity. As Paul reminded the Corinthians, not once but twice in his first letter to that church, we were bought for a price. The blood of Jesus, the life of God, was the ULTIMATE sacrifice. We are free in America because of the American soldier. We have eternal life because of our faith in Jesus Christ!