Vonda Rodgers, the mother of fallen Army Ranger Josh Rodgers, was at Fort Benning, Ga., this week to welcome home her son’s military unit from Afghanistan, or, as she put it, “to make sure they’re doing OK and so they can see we’re doing OK.” She arranged the special meeting — a gracious gesture from a family that’s at peace.
If only it were so with the rest of the world.
This Memorial Day holds acute poignancy, a special sorrowfulness for our community. It was one month ago today that Sgt. Rodgers died on the other side of the globe, fighting ISIS militants in a night-time raid near Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan, successfully targeting the Islamic State’s leader there.
Many of us knew Josh. Most of us did not, just as we didn’t know the servicemen and women from other wars whose graves are decorated this weekend with American flags and, perhaps, flowers. Yet we owe them so much.
It was 149 years ago that Gen. John Logan (our Logan County was named after his father) ordered members of his politically powerful organization of Union soldiers, the Grand Army of the Republic, to adorn the graves of fallen comrades with flowers on May 30. After World War I, the tribute, then commonly called “Decoration Day,” evolved to honor military personnel who died in all wars. Memorial Day didn’t become an official holiday until 1971.
Now there’s a fresh grave in Evergreen Cemetery that holds another of our own. And 217 large American flags line the path to and from that southeastern part of the cemetery, each flagpole with a plaque honoring a deceased veteran. One has the name of Air Force veteran Michael Rodgers. That’s Josh Rodgers’ grandfather. Now the flagpole holds a second name.
Just one day before Josh was laid to rest, a sizable monument was erected next to what would be his grave, commemorating how the “Traveling Tribute” Vietnam Memorial Wall stood on that site for five days last August. The wall contains the names of 58,307 Americans who died in a distant country. There’s another American flag there on an even taller flagpole. The thought is to reserve that part of Evergreen for veterans and their spouses.
Josh’s father, Kevin, didn’t travel to Georgia this week, staying behind so he could be part of a ceremony at the Illinois State Capitol. About a month from now, both of Josh’s parents will be at Fort Benning for a memorial service where his name and that of another Ranger who died in the high-stakes raid, Sgt. Cameron Thomas of Ohio, will be added to a monument there.
History has made us too good, too practiced at building memorials and holding ceremonies honoring our war dead, many of whom had what the poet called “a half-used life.” For Sgts. Rodgers and Thomas, it was even less.
They were just 22 and 23 years old, respectively, the 1,834th and 1,835th American troops killed in action in Afghanistan since the U.S.-led invasion began nearly 16 years ago. The Pentagon says they may have been victims of “friendly fire,” a theory disputed on social media by some of their fellow combatants.
To Josh’s family, it’s irrelevant. I admire that perspective.
The dark reality is that war is ugly, even when it’s necessary. Once a bullet is triggered loose, it doesn’t discriminate. It may strike a tree, a building, human flesh. People in those faraway places know what war does to their homelands.
And now for the Rodgers family and for our community, as proud as we are, the war has come home.