My grandfather, Joe Conway, landed at Normandy beach in the hours just after the D-day invasion began. Upon arriving he gathered with his unit, got his gear together, and headed inland. He would fight in France, Belgium and Germany. He was wounded and received the Purple Heart. But he never talked about it.
While I grew up knowing he had served in World War II, he didn’t discuss it. Oh, he would tell you about basic training, friends he made, and even his time in the hospital in France. But about the war itself, he just didn’t have a word to say.
Until the very end of his life.
In the last few weeks before he died he began to share stories and memories. He looked through books and told tales of people and places he had never mentioned before.
The story I remember best was about his boots. He said that when he landed at Normandy, he took off his boots and let them air out while he worked on equipment. He put them on when it was time to move inland. After that he didn’t take them off for eleven straight days. Not even for a second. He had opportunities, but he was afraid that the moment he took them off the enemy would show up and he wouldn’t be able to run.
I cannot imagine what that was like. The fear. The constant uncertainty. The desire to fulfill your duty mixed with the desire to just get home. It is all so foreign for me.
But most of all it is difficult for me to envision my grandfather as a soldier. I have seen the pictures. The stately photo of my unbelievably young grandfather in uniform before shipping out. The casual one of him and a buddy in a jeep somewhere in Europe. Even though I know it happened, that he fought in World War II, it just doesn’t fit in my brain. He was such a sweet, gentle man. He consistently served those in need. He loved his wife, his family, and his church. When I stayed with my grandparents he would wake me up early, before the sun was up. He had to be at the steel mill where he welded soon. He would fry up some pancakes and we would eat together. Then he would put me back in bed. My grandmother would wake me up hours later and I would often receive a second breakfast. It’s just impossible for me to imagine that man with a gun on the field of battle.
I think that one of the difficulties of war that we seldom talk about is how many soldiers must leave part of themselves behind or become someone different to do their duty. My grandfather must have certainly done this.
On this Memorial day I want to honor my grandfather. But I am not a soldier. I don’t work for the government. I don’t have a job where daily I lay my life on the line. But there is one way I think I can bring honor to his memory.
Nothing would honor my grandfather more than helping to create a world where people no longer feel the need to fight over land or religion. To drop bombs in the name of political ideas or economic gain.
Instead, I want to promote a world where turning the other cheek and loving your neighbor as yourself are the weapons of choice. I want the world to become a place where no soldier ever has to leave part of themselves behind to do their duty. I want no young man to ever again have to leave his boots on for days because he fears for his life. I want to learn to be a peacemaker.
So how do we do it? How do we move from people who would love peace to actually making some? I am not really sure. I don’t have much political pull. So maybe we have to start where we are.
So today here is what I plan to do. I plan to tell my children about their great-grandfather. I will tell them about his time as a soldier. And also about the rest of his life. And when I am done, I will remind them that the greatest legacy he left them wasn’t as a decorated war veteran, but as a humble servant of Jesus. And I will ask them to become people who refuse to fight to get what they want or to spread their beliefs. I will ask them to love, especially when it is difficult. I will ask them to be more concerned with how they can serve someone than how they can convince someone. And if you knew my grandfather, then you will know how much that kind of peacemaking is just what he would want.
So here is to you Joe Conway. Your service (all types) is appreciated.
And here is to you Daddy Joe. I hope this peacemaker makes you proud.