This past Memorial Day weekend I was given the opportunity of a lifetime. I got to march through Washington, before a crowd of more than 300,000, with my son, LCDR Graham Plaster (USNA ’02), and his US Navy Reserve unit. For us, it was a poignant reminder of when he and I served in Iraq at the same time in 2003. While I still drill with a Marine Corps unit, his unit was more than happy to have me fall in with his. We wore our crisp summer whites as we passed silently by the World War II Memorial commemorating the sacrifices of so many, including my father and all of my uncles. In so doing, I was reminded that the accolades of a grateful nation go far beyond the parades and flowers and flags of Arlington National Cemetery. I hear it everyday from total strangers, whether it’s become a cliche or not, when they take time to say, “Thank you for your service.” I accept the courtesy and return it in kind because I feel that it is good and right that we, as a culture, recognize the sacrifices of those around us.
That’s why I stop every Christmas and Memorial Day to give thanks for and pray for the life and family of Army Major John Pryor, a trauma surgeon from the University of Pennsylvania, who was killed on December 25, 2008 in an Iraqi village not far from where I was stationed. He didn’t have to be in harms way. He was a reservist with an important job to do back home. He had been to Iraq before. He had a wife and children who loved him. He had every reason to take a pass on returning to the battlefield. But he didn’t. He elected to do his duty and apply his unique skill to care for the soldiers, sailors, and marines who were following the orders of the Commander-in-Chief.
There are many others who you may be remembering at these times, family members, friends, loved ones and colleagues, who have sacrificed for the safety and security of our nation. This shouldn’t be limited to those of us who have served in the military. When I leave in the morning after a long night shift, I always try to stop and say to the security guard at the door, “Thank you for your service.” I know that there have been times in my career when their thankless job was all that stood between me and angry, violent people.
The list of people who faithfully hold up the safety net of our culture is a long one, and includes my colleagues in the noble profession of emergency medicine. The founding fathers of our specialty left their practices to give themselves to the poor and needy who were coming by increasing numbers to the small, packed ERs. They endured the derision of their established colleagues to do a job that was in many ways also thankless.
But like those who like to deride the “volunteer army”, as some like to call us, we too are paid. Some say handsomely. And that, they remind us, should be thanks enough. But I disagree. Not because we are not paid enough. But because it is good for a nation to cultivate a climate of gratitude. It causes all of us to look beyond ourselves to the work and sacrifice of others. The words of John F. Kennedy can fade into history if we do not work to renew them in our lives. “Ask not what your country can do for you. But ask what you can do for your country,” is more than a phrase to be inscribed on buildings and memorials. It should be a way of life that forms the supporting pillars of our society. As I have written in this column in the past, this desire to serve one another is the real economy of our society. To receive value for service does not invalidate the service, it is the commerce of gratitude.
One of the most important things I do every night as I enter a patient’s room is to introduce myself and ask them sincerely, “How can I help you?” Sometimes, as we all know, that is the beginning of a technical question. The answer being, “I’ll give you my symptoms and you apply your knowledge and experience to tell me what is wrong.” But it is all too often answered with it’s own human question. “I’m confused, scared, alone, and in pain. Do you care for me?” The answer to the first question is sometimes inadequately answered, because I’m not smart enough or the answer is simply unobtainable in that setting. But the answer to the second question is always a soft, confident, “Yes, I do care for you. And I will do what I can to help you walk through this situation.”
The US Naval Academy community recently laid to rest the body of Midshipman Justin Zemzer who was killed in a tragic train crash in Philadelphia. In high school he had been the valedictorian, the class president and captain of the football team. At the academy he was a top notch student and a member of the sprint football team. He was planning to become a Navy SEAL. In honor to Justin the Washington Post found it fitting to publish a lengthy letter he had recently written to his uncle detailing the personal growth that had occurred in his life as the result of a humanities course he had recently taken. Here was a young man in prime physical condition, literally a specimen of manhood, learning the skills of controlled violence and war, and what he was excited about was the lessons he was learning about relationships between human beings.
Midshipman Zemzer was excited, not just about the glories of a life in the military, but about a life of service to others. My thoughts and prayers go out the grieving family members and friends who suffer the loss of this exceptional young man. But his gift to this nation, this society, was already engraved in stone long before his parents received the stars and stripes “from a grateful nation.”
As all of us in the industry of caring and protecting go forward, I also pray that we will see that we are a part of an economy of gratitude. We perform valuable caring service and receive value and gratitude in return. It’s a wonderful place to live and work. I hope you are grateful to be able to do this job. I know it’s hard. I recently sat in my car at the end of a long night and wept after participating in an unsuccessful code of an infant. It takes its toll on all of us. And sometimes people are not grateful for your service. But know that a lot of other people are. And I am among them.
The crowds cheered for us on Memorial Day as we passed in review. But there are legions of those who cheer for you, too, and the sacrifices you have made to make this nation healthy and secure. I salute you. And thank you for your service.
Photo by Marine Corps New York