He takes another sniff against his watering eyes, bites his lip. He’s almost choking as he struggles to breathe in the heavy air. His knees give way, and he kneels before the cross, his shoulders heaving. His wife is suddenly at one shoulder, his son at the other. He’s glad they are there, but they cannot help with what needs to be done.
He mumbles that he’s all right, and they retreat several steps, leaving him to the thoughts that press so hard he can’t bear the weight.
Not until this moment does he realize that what he has been looking forward to yet dreading is a transaction. An exchange of some kind. For him this visit to the Normandy American Cemetery is no sightseeing tour. It’s a profound action. Even now he cannot say why he believes this to be the case. The emotion that’s seized him declares it to be so, however.
Whatever must happen involves the question that’s dogged him his whole life. The unspoken question that’s brought him here. He feels its presence in every memory, and not only the good ones.
Now that he’s looking at his captain’s grave, Ryan has to ask the question.
Decades earlier, on June 6, 1944, Captain Miller and his men had landed at Omaha Beach, a horror James Ryan had been spared as part of the 101st Airborne. His unit had been dropped into Normandy the night before the sea assault. He later learned from the tales of his buddies and from seeing newsreel footage what D-day had been like. Although Germany had not been expecting the assault at the place Eisenhower chose, the air assault hadn’t softened their positions one whit, and when the armored front of the Higgins boats opened onto the beach, the men were ducks on a pond to the enemy’s machine guns.
Many of those sitting forward in the landing craft never had a chance to move from their seats as the Germans opened fire. Those who jumped over the craft’s sides to swim and crawl ashore could only cling to the Belgian gates and iron hedgehogs – the jack-shaped defensive works strewn in rows all along the shingle that prevented tanks from making the initial assault.
The army rangers humped forward in waves, men falling to the right and left every few feet. They were getting hit not only by machinegun fire but by artillery as well. Bodies flew with the explosions. The wounded picked up their severed arms and stumbled a few more feet to their deaths. The waves washing onto the beaches ran red with blood, lapping at the dead, who lay scattered and senseless.
Captain Miller and a few of his company made it to the seawall. Although 50 percent of the men in the first waves to hit Omaha Beach were killed in action, the others broke the first line of German defenses.
Soon after the hell of D-Day, Captain Miller and a squad of seven men were assigned to find paratrooper James Ryan and bring him home – alive. The army’s chief of staff, General George C. Marshall, had personally issued the order for Private James Ryan to be taken out of the war. Ryan’s two older brothers had died in the great assault, and a third brother had been killed in action in New Guinea. Marshall thought that three sons were enough for any mother to contribute to the war.
Captain Miller and his squad found Ryan with remnants of the 506, Baker Company, which had orders to secure a bridge on the far side of a river. The company had been ordered to hold the bridge at all costs – or, as a final defense, to blow it up. When Captain Miller and his squad arrived to take Ryan home, Ryan refused to leave. Miller asked him what he was supposed to say to Ryan’s mother when she got another folded American flag. Ryan replied, “You can tell her that when you found me, I was with the only brothers I had left. And that there was no way I was deserting them. I think she’d understand that.”
Captain Miller and his squad told Ryan angrily that they had already lost two men in the search to find him. Miller finally decided that they’d make Ryan’s battle their own as well and save him in the process.
The Germans soon came at them – nearly a full company of men, two Panzer tanks, two Tigers. The Americans lured the Panzers down the village’s main street, where they staged an effective ambush. The only thing Ryan had been allowed to do was pitch mortar shells like hand grenades. Captain Miller never let Ryan leave his side, protecting the private every step of the way.
Still, one tank blew their sharpshooter to eternity. Another soldier died in hand-to-hand combat with a knife to his heart. No matter their ingenuity, the squad couldn’t hold off such an overpowering force, and the men made a strategic retreat to the other side of the bridge. In the retreat one of the sergeants was hit and collapsed.
Captain Miller took a shot beneath his ribs as he struggled to fix the wiring on a detonation device. Then an artillery blast knocked him nearly unconscious. All hope lost, Captain Miller began shooting at a tank coming straight at him.
Suddenly, Tankbuster aircraft shrieked down on them, blowing the enemy’s tanks to smithereens and routing their foot soldiers. The Allies’ own armored reinforcements rolled up minutes later.
Of the squad that had come to save Ryan, only two men escaped relatively unscathed. The others were dead or dying.
Captain Miller lay close by where he had been hit, his back slumped against the bridge’s wall. Ryan, in anguish, was alone with his rescuer in the final moments before Miller died. Ryan watched as the captain struggled in his last moments, shot clean through one lung. The captain wouldn’t take another breath, except to grunt, “James. Earn this . . . earn it.”
Were these dying words a final order or charge?
These memories rivet the aged James Ryan, who now finds himself staring at the grave marker and mumbling to his dead commander. He tells Captain Miller that his family is with him. He confesses that he wasn’t sure how he would feel about coming to the cemetery today. He wants Captain Miller to know that every day of his life he’s thought of their conversation at the bridge, of Miller’s dying words. Ryan has tried to live a good life, and he hopes he has. At least in the captain’s eyes, he hopes he’s “earned it,” that his life has been worthy of the sacrifice Captain Miller and the other men made of giving their lives for his.
As Ryan mutters these thoughts, he cannot help wondering how any life, however well lived, could be worthy of his friends’ sacrifice. The old man stands up, but he doesn’t feel released. The question remains unanswered.
His wife comes to his side again. He looks at her and pleads, “Tell me I’ve led a good life.”
Confused by his request, she responds with a question: “What?”
He has to know the answer. He tries to articulate it again: “Tell me I’m a good man.”
The request flusters her, but his earnestness makes her think better of putting it off. With great dignity, she says, “You are.”
His wife turns back to the other family members, whose stirring says they are ready to leave.
Before James Ryan joins them, he comes to attention and salutes his fallen comrade. What a gallant old soldier he is.
(Excerpt from The Good Life by Chuck Colson)
So you see, James Ryan, out of gratitude for the sacrifice of his friend Captain Miller, did all in his power to live a good life.
Today, Veteran’s Day, is an exceptional time for each of us to look at our own lives and examine our hearts. Are we attempting to live ‘good lives’ in gratitude for all those who have gone before us in sacrifice – those who gave their lives, those who gave up years in service to our country, and those currently serving? Are we filled with thankfulness for those who have gone before us so we could live a ‘good life’ – one of freedom and liberty in a country where we have a vote, can raise our children as we would like, and can sleep safely at night?
And what about our families, devoted friends, and most of all Christ?
Like James Ryan, are we kneeling before the cross? What a powerful allegory in this imagery. Are we following the commands of our Captain thankfully doing our duty for Christ whatever the Lord has called us?
Take a long look in the mirror and appraise your life.
This Veteran’s Day, thank those who have sacrificed for you and those you know who have served in our nation’s armed forces at home or on foreign soil. Connect with them today…just do it! Tell them how much their service means to you. Maybe you’ll do what I do when you see a serviceman or woman in uniform …wherever that might be. Walk up to them and thank them for their service.
And then go and remember Whom it is you serve.
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