Grateful civilian feels forever outranked

BY FRANK WOOTEN Tomorrow is Memorial Day.

But at a scenic spot in Mount Pleasant, every day is a Memorial Day of sorts, thanks to a hard-to-miss monument for an American soldier killed in the line of duty in Iraq.

That small stone marker, shown in the accompanying photo, lies about 20 yards to the left of Alhambra Hall as you face Charleston Harbor.

It’s a constant reminder of the ultimate sacrifice made by Army Sgt. Adam Wenger, the former Christ Our King altar boy and Wando High soccer star who once frolicked as a child at that waterfront site.

Flanked by little U.S. flags, the marker is increasingly shaded by a growing oak tree planted behind it at its March 2009 dedication. A Tiger paw license plate hangs in the tree to honor the fervent Clemson allegiance of Sgt. Wenger, who also served in Kosovo and Afghanistan.

As the marker shows, he was 27 when he died.

The marker shows, too, that we shouldn’t wait until Memorial Day Weekend to remember the heavy burden carried by our armed forces — and their families.

And Sgt. Wenger’s memorial also should make most of us remember that we never served in the military.

For American males born in 1953, including me, that lifelong civilian status would have seemed unlikely when we were kids. Many of us grew up playing war — and knowing our dads had served during “The Big One” (World War II), the “police action” otherwise known as the Korean War, or both.

We knew there was a draft. By the mid-1960s, if we were paying attention, we knew rising ranks of Americans not much older than us were being sent to — and killed in — Vietnam. The longer that messy mission lasted, and the more we heard from guys who came back alive, the more we knew that playing war was a lot more fun than real war.

So when President Richard Nixon ended the draft in 1973, lots of us celebrated.

Yet that shared relief hasn’t stopped many American men who never risked participation in a 20th — or 21st — century armed conflict from playing 19th century war as adults.

No matter how “authentic” re-enactors try to make it, though, today’s phony Civil warriors, unlike the real things, don’t suffer the ordeals of rampant disease, primitive medical treatment, long-term separations from loved ones and mass slaughter.

Meanwhile, no matter how persuasive the reasons, there’s something disconcerting about so many non-veterans — in and beyond the halls of power — sending today’s military men (and women) into harm’s way.

That doesn’t mean we should revive the draft. The all-volunteer military has performed impressively. And those who rightly hail small government should be wary about the big power given to any government that can impose military conscription.

Still, many of us who never served in the armed forces feel a twinge about that now and then — and not just on this long weekend.

We also take scant consolation in the knowledge that the U.S. loss of lives, if not limbs, during our protracted campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan remains relatively light when compared to our previous wars.

Can that statistic ease the pain for Sgt. Wenger’s widow and kids?

Back to the Civil War: In Margaret Mitchell’s epic novel “Gone With the Wind,” soon after Scarlett O’Hara flees falling Atlanta with a dashing rogue from Charleston, she’s stunned when he says he’s belatedly becoming a Confederate foot soldier rather than helping her get her all the way back to Tara.

She thinks back to “all he’d said about stupid fools who were enticed into losing their lives by a roll of drums and brave words from orators — fools who killed themselves that wise men might make money!”

In the classic 1939 movie’s version of that scene, Scarlett tells the profiteering blockade runner:

“Oh, Rhett, I’m so glad you aren’t with the army. You can be proud, proud that you’ve been smarter than all of them.”

Rhett replies: “I’m not so proud.”

In the book, Butler even uses the word “ashamed.”

Should we non-veterans be ashamed?

Not necessarily. But we sure should be proud of Sgt. Wenger — and of our other military members, past, present and future.

And we should make sure that the ones who are still alive know it.

Frank Wooten is assistant editor of The Post and Courier. His email is wooten@postandcourier.com.