On Nov. 11, 2011, I stood in front of a gravestone at the local national cemetery in small town Arkansas. The dates read: August 23, 1988-May 6, 2010.
I had never met the Marine resting before me, but I was overwhelmed by the story his grave told me. To most people, Lance Cpl. Richard R. Penny’s memorial read like many others. For me, it was a vivid narrative of where he had been and what he had done. I knew his story because in May 2010, I too was deployed to Afghanistan in the same region. Looking at his grave, I realized that we probably met the same people, shared the same struggles and hoped to return home to the same community in Arkansas.
Penny’s sacrifice reminded me that the burden of war continues to be placed on our young and brightest, while the rest of the country goes on, uninterrupted. For more than a decade, the United States has fought two wars concurrently, and we are still fighting today in Afghanistan, even though the reality of war bleeds less and less across front pages nationwide.
This Veterans Day, the challenge for the American people is to find a way to remember men like Richard Penny every day as we transition from these wars. The same as on Memorial Day, Americans should visit memorials at national cemeteries to honor those who died for our cause far from our shores and those who died later with the peace of having made it home. Those humble letters on marble and granite speak volumes about America’s character in wars to preserve freedom around the world.
At the same time, we owe it to the dead to say to the living: “Thank you for your service, it will not be forgotten.” Americans should visit and volunteer at veterans centers and homeless shelters across the country. We should go to schools to teach our children what it means when we promise never to leave the fallen behind.
Finally, we have to talk to the veterans in our own homes and communities, suffering from the negative effects of war, to ensure that they have the one thing America owes them more than anything else: an extended family ready to listen.
Thomas Bishop is an Army Reserves captain and a University of Arkansas graduate. He is a 2011 Tillman Military Scholar. His piece was originally featured in Stars and Stripes on Veterans Day 2013.