When the old soldier passed away few days ago, he had already hung up his last uniform. He was my brother, a career soldier, and I had seen him in several uniforms going back to childhood, when he was a Boy Scout, then a member of the high school marching band, then a private in the U.S. Army. Drafted at 19, just as the Korean War was ending, he served through the Vietnam War, but luckily in Panama, England, and Germany. Instead of fighting the wars, he was keeping the peace. The invasion of South Korea by the North was stopped, but a peace treaty was not signed. Germany and much of Europe was divided into Soviet spheres and Western spheres. The potential for conflict was always there, in those days of the Cold War.
Looking back on the Eisenhower ‘50s, jobs were not always easy to find, so he had re-enlisted and stayed a soldier. When he retired, he settled in Germany, as he was then married to a German woman and found kinship with distant relatives of our family’s Colonel Borders, who had left Germany in our Revolutionary War, been with Cornwallis when the British surrendered, and moved west to Kentucky. Soldiers remaining abroad is an old, old story.
Sergeant Burgess, as a boy, had been four years older than me, and though a tease, he’d not been a bully. He was a tough kid, and captain of his track team, but he’d mediate disputes rather than start them. He’d protect me or any of my small friends when a bigger boy tried to push us around. Later in life, he rescued stray cats and dogs, giving several of them homes. As a young man, he integrated our all-white neighborhood by regularly bringing home various darker-skinned friends.
Given these peace maker qualities, it’s not surprising that when the war in Vietnam was escalating he voiced misgivings to me. He was glad he never faced the decision to go or not to a war he considered unjust. By the time of the First Gulf War, he was retired, and didn’t have to worry about going to that fight. But he did wonder aloud if it had been absolutely necessary. Was Iraq the bully—or were we?
A day or so after 9/11 he called me excitedly. The German people were out in the streets by the thousands, cheering for the U.S.A., in support of us during our time of national anguish. Unfortunately, that all changed when President George W. Bush prepared to invade Iraq—a country unrelated to 9/11—thousands were out in the streets again, as they were here, protesting against the Iraq War. As the invasion began, he phoned to tell me the planes were taking off in Germany, headed south. Later he phoned again as the wounded returned to German hospitals for treatment before being shipped home.
Like most Europeans and many Americans, he never really understood why we invaded Iraq. He speculated that it had to do with the younger Bush completing his father’s shortened war. When we visited him in 2004, we were bombarded with questions by friendly Germans. Why were our troops in Iraq? What was George Bush thinking? We never had a good answer, and neither did he. He always voted, absentee, and was a supporter of both the Clintons. At first he didn’t like Obama because he defeated Hillary, but he later felt Obama was a pretty good Commander in Chief.
Richard Lee—the Lee was after Robert E., our mother was born in Arkansas—always kept his head up, and his belief in an afterlife. He called it “another plain of existence.” He died at 80, of heart disease, proud to be an American soldier, but hurting a little about how our soldiers were used and are still being used. Unlike some of the men and women who return home to poverty or homelessness, he survived and thrived, but in the end, his reward was $300 to his wife for his burial. And his knowledge that he kept the oath that was fundamental to him, to support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America.
Jack Burgess is the former Executive Director of the Columbus Education Association, and a graduate of Portsmouth High School.