I don’t even have to make it through the first scene, before the tears start welling up.
The flags. The graves. The losses.
The willingness to totally give, for others.
That look on their faces, in the minute before someone says, “OK, let’s go.”
There are movies that are difficult for me to watch. Many of them are ones that I will see once, and never again
And then there are ones like this. It’s torture — but I do it again and again.
I was a youngster when Pvt. Ryan came out, a lieutenant on my first assignment. It was the summer of 1998 — a summer I won’t forget any time soon. Back then, I was a maintenance officer, running the heavy maintenance program for the infantry and armor brigade in Schweinfurt — I was the Shop Officer, if you know the lingo. It was the year I did not see my wife, and it was the year I spent more time with something called a six print than I did with her. David L. Grange was my commanding general — he made us all see the movie in special showings on post.
I was back from my first deployment — IFOR had become SFOR and I had done six months with my unit in Bosnia. I’d already done some pretty crazy things — to include things like extracting a 5000 gallon fuel truck from a mine field.
It was a time when my peers bitched more about the prospects of conducting peace keeping or peace making operations, and of being gone for six months at a stint, than they did about the actual prospect of war. It was sad, listening to folks complain and complain and complain.
I was still fresh enough to remember stupid things like throwing grenades, breaching mine fields and other obstacles, of doing things like crewing a heavy machine gun and having to carry a ton of belted ammo through the hills of Georgia.
All of those things that I watched them do in that long opening sequence of this movie. Short controlled bursts. Carefully thrown grenades. Checking trenches. Enemy that are right there.
Jesus, I remember thinking, will I be ready?
If you haven’t seen this movie, do. It speaks volumes about what your Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines are doing for you. Some things worth considering:
CPT Miller (Tom Hanks): When you think of officers in our military, is this what you think of? Is this what you expect? One way or the other, you should have an opinion on that very topic. What is it that you expect as a standard for behavior and leadership from our armed forces?
We would do well to have an Army filled with CPT Millers.
But I’ll let you in on a little secret — we do. There on the screen is a man whose sole existence is caught up in that moment. All that he was, all that he is, all that he ever could be, is right there, leading those troops. If the war never ended, he would surely get up tomorrow morning and lead the troops just the same.
And watch what he does. He may be their leader, but he’s not always leading. I love, love, love the character of Tech Sergeant Horvath, the E7 that is with him throughout this adventure. Miller is smart enough to let his NCO’s do the leading, and he’s smart enough to let them, make them, play their role in getting things done.
That is also as it is today.
Watch him, also, as he moves with his soldiers. He listens to them. Yes, he’s in charge, and yes, you’ll see that what he says goes. But he’s smart enough to listen to what they have to say. His soldiers aren’t fools. Neither are ours today. He’s not their friend, he’s not their buddy. He hears their complaints, their issues, their grievances — and they never hear his.
And this quote of his: “It wasn’t my company, it was the Army’s.” He’d lost 35 men on a mission, had twice that wounded, and he’s told to give up his company, form up a squad, and go find a needle in a haystack.
From Company Commander, to Squad Leader. 100+ guys, to 8.
When I was told that it was time to hand over my company to the next in line, I slinkered off and tried not to cry. I was tired, exhausted, worn out, stressed beyond anything I ever thought possible, and so amazingly honored with having been given the chance that I was crushed to see it come to an end. For many, we knows that it’s about as good as it gets.
And then it’s over. And we move on to something else.
If the Army needed Miller to scrub toilets, he would. And he’d do his best. He has faith in the system; he believes. I see that in my peers every damn day. And it’s awesome to see, every damn day.
But for as much as I love CPT Miller’s character, I always learn more from Tech Sergeant Horvath. When things need to get done, it’s Horvath who makes it happen. Easy things, complicated things — every thing. Miller might be leading, but the backbone of it all is Horvath.
It is no different today. Do you want to see the heroes of the war today? Go spend time with our NCO’s, our Sergeants. For every accomplishment, for every patrol that makes it back, for every life saved and enemy captured, it is our NCO’s that make it all happen.
When things are quiet, it’s Miller and Horvath who sit and talk. Like an old married couple. Like damn near every commander and senior NCO who are teamed up in the Army today. Horvath, or whatever your Horvath is named, is the one you sit with on the bridge, to talk about leaving, or staying to fight. You can’t buy a Horvath, can’t make one overnight. It’s all the years, the experiences, what they’ve done that makes our senior NCO’s worth their weight in gold.
And if you hadn’t notice, these guys are doing all this with what they can carry on their backs. There’s no spare bags, to extra duffel bags. No stash of clean socks, no warm coat, no shower shoes. Wet, stinky, smelly. Hungry, tired.
Could you — would you — live that life? We’ve got small bases on our battlefields today that lack laundry services. Lack showers. Lack a kitchen. Lack everything. And our soldiers do it — not by choice, but out of duty. Their reality today is that that’s how they’re living, and they will keep on doing that until the day comes when someone says something otherwise. It’s sacrifice — daily sacrifice at a level most Americans can’t even begin to really comprehend.
And one last thing: Would our Army today make this kind of an effort to find one guy?
I can watch this movie, but only so often. I can certainly watch it more often than I can watch the Band of Brothers series. But I’ll tell ya — there are parts that make me squirm in my seat — like watching the medic die. That overwhelming sense of…… death. There is no mistaking the stakes involved.
So, yes. Watch this movie. Not once, but from time to time. Watch it, to remind yourself that we are a nation at war. Watch it, because out sons and daughters are out there today making as great an effort and making as great of sacrifices as you’ll see here.
(PS — the letter from President Lincoln is a favorite of mine.)