In 2004, two men from the Kansas National Guard were killed in Iraq while supporting the Army unit of my brother, Lt. Col. Austin Hamner. Their deaths, just three days before Veterans Day, prompted my brother to write a letter to his three young daughters to explain what that day really means and to keep the memories of these two heroes alive.
When soldiers die in battle, the comrades who survive them must come to grips with their deaths. My brother was faced with that when Staff Sgt. Clinton Lee Wisdom and Spc. Don Clary, both from the Kansas National Guard, died heroically while protecting a convoy in Iraq on Nov. 8.
In such a situation, many believe it is “better to light a candle than curse the darkness.” Adopting that mind-set, my brother wrote the letter that explained the Guardsmen’s sacrifice.
“The best way to honor these men is to keep their memory alive,” my brother told me. “I wrote only to the girls because they were young and didn’t really understand the meaning of Veterans Day.”
Although he wrote the letter for his daughters, it quickly caught the attention of others. It was read at his daughters’ school on Veterans Day, printed in the local newspaper, discussed on some popular radio talk shows, made required reading by the Kansas National Guard Chaplain for Guard families with young children, and quoted by a Kansas congressman in a speech to his constituents.
A year later, my brother was invited to speak at the dedication of a memorial to the two men in Atchison, Kansas. Below is what he wrote from Iraq.
I have something very important to tell you about this war and the meaning of Veterans Day. We should never forget that Veterans Day used to be called Armistice Day. This particular day was chosen because that was the month, day and hour that World War I ended, which was November 11, 1918 at 11 a.m. This was supposed to be the “war to end all wars,” but of course, we know that it was not the last one.
Sometimes on Veterans Day, we lose connection to the real meaning of the day. I’ve written a few words that may help you to understand what it is all about. Sweethearts, I’ve just returned from the memorial service that was held for two very special soldiers. These two men were taken from this world on Monday of this very week protecting our unit. They were very brave men who protected generals and your dad, too.
The first man’s name is Spc. Don Allen Clary. He would have celebrated his 22nd birthday on the last day of this year, Dec. 31. His mother must have wondered if she was to have a New Year’s baby when he was born in 1982. That’s the same year as your big brother John.
Spc. Clary had a girlfriend, but they hadn’t married yet and so that part of the story will never be known. What we do know is that he built a house before he left and that he loved to fish. He was a tall man who worked with his hands and he was good at most everything he did. He was excited for the future, but first he wanted to serve his country.
The second hero’s name is Staff Sgt. Clinton Lee Wisdom. This hero just turned 39 in August. He was married and had three children who attended three different levels of school, namely: high school, middle school and elementary school just like our family. He also loved to fish even more than Spc. Clary, but he always took one of his children along so they could have quiet time with dad. He wanted to run for mayor of his town once he returned to Kansas.
Both men had the job of leading convoys and protecting generals and other high ranking people so that they would be safe. This was a frequent mission to take several high ranking people to the American Embassy in the International Zone. A suicide bomber aimed a truck for the convoy and the VIP vehicles.
These two soldiers placed their own vehicle between the suicide truck and the rest of the convoy to protect the riders. The truck detonated and instantly took these two soldiers away from this world.
One of the men who was saved was appointed by President Bush and who is now returning to submit testimony before the U.S. Congress in Washington D.C. This high ranking man said that he owes his life to these two heroes and hopes that he can live to be worthy of the great sacrifice these two men made. I am sure that neither he nor the people with them that day will ever forget these two heroes.
Sooner or later all of us will pass on from this life, but those who willingly give their lives for others certainly are true heroes. Jesus once taught the world that, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” John 15:13. That is one way to know that these two men were real-life heroes.
We had a memorial this morning for these two heroes. You might think that Army soldiers are tough and don’t need to have time for this. It is exactly the opposite, sweethearts. We too, need time to grieve over the loss of friends and family.
A British soldier played the bagpipes as we assembled for the service. The memorial stand had two pairs of empty desert combat boots with M-16 rifles pointed down beside the shoes. Their kevlar helmets were placed on top of the upturned rifles. The unit that lost the men was called to attention and then role call was made. Each man responded to their individual names. Only silence responded to the names of the fallen heroes.
The names were called out three times according to custom before the name is marked as “not present.” Shortly afterward, a wonderful trumpet played the mournful notes of “Taps” while the entire unit saluted. Upon conclusion, each soldier in the entire unit then had a chance to march up to the temporary memorials and render one final salute to their dear friends.
Some spent time on their knees in quiet remembrance of their friends. There were many tears among this “band of brothers” today. Yes girls, soldiers cry too.
Within another week, there will be another similar memorial, back in the state of Kansas. The difference this time will be the individual families that will say good-bye. Spc. Clary and his girlfriend and family, along with the wife and children of Staff Sgt. Wisdom and their close friends and family, will say their final farewells. There will be a military funeral that includes a 21-gun salute. Once that is over, the respective families must then adjust their lives without their real heroes being with them anymore.
This is what we memorialize on Veterans Day. We remember the sacrifice of the soldiers themselves along with their grieving families. These men were just two of the more than a thousand heroes who have been taken during this conflict.
This is the day to also remember all wars that have been fought on behalf of our country. It is important that we remember who these heroes are and that they are not forgotten. It is not just words spoken softly on one day of the year, but that we remember each time we see the wonderful flags flying along the light poles in Greenwood.
Each one helps us to remember others who are no longer with us to enjoy the freedom that was given to us as a gift from those who sacrificed earlier in our country’s history.
I am nearing the end of my time here in Baghdad, Iraq and I am so looking forward to seeing you three as well as your brothers again and being together. I will give you extra hugs and kisses because I know that there are children who will not get them from their dad who was taken away on Monday.
Maybe we can visit the soldiers’ and sailors’ memorial in downtown Indianapolis and remember the other families and heroes so that they are never forgotten too.
Hamner is the Executive Director of the Tooele County Chamber of Commerce and Tourism