That’s the headline on the front page of The Fayetteville Observer today, and it gave me pause. Beneath those four words were accounts of the various Memorial Day events that took place yesterday in the Fort Bragg area.
The same story, more or less, is in the paper each year on the Tuesday after Memorial Day. I’ve gotten used to reading it in the nine years I’ve lived just a few miles outside of Bragg’s gates. People here pay a bit more attention to Memorial Day than people in other parts of the country. There are probably more commemorative events in this region than elsewhere and almost certainly more people in attendance for whom Memorial Day means a specific name and face. Here it’s not just a day off work and definitely not just a day for beach trips and grilling out. But that headline, “Home of the Brave,” seems especially poignant here. This, this area where I live, truly is the home of the brave. Not the only home of the brave, certainly there are lots of brave people living elsewhere, but Fort Bragg is America’s most populated Army post and is home to the greatest concentration of military first responders. “When the President calls 911, the phone rings at Fort Bragg,” or so the saying goes. I daresay there are more brave people per capita here than anywhere else in the United States.
There’s a downside to that, to be sure. Simply driving Yadkin Road at the end of the workday (aka, “the Yadkin 500”) feels like a kamikaze mission. Working as a bar bouncer in this town, I’m told, is the best training a man can get in hand-to-hand combat. Bouncers here don’t just check IDs and give menacing looks: they really work. Even the kids here are jaded. When youth soccer season started this spring on post we heard a rumor that the Golden Knights, the Army’s parachute team, were going to jump in for the ceremony (a false rumor, btw) and no one was even surprised or excited. In other parts of the country the Golden Knights are the primary attraction at air shows; here they’re a shoulder shrug. On a post where every child has a parent who jumps out of airplanes, parachutists aren’t all that impressive.
But that headline today really got me thinking this morning: Home of the Brave, indeed. Ours is a country where health insurance is fast becoming mandatory and where we tsk, tsk retirees for not contributing enough to their IRAs. Codes inspectors check and recheck our buildings against a list so nit-picky that laymen don’t even understand the logic, and health inspectors do the same in our restaurants. (Tell me again why it is that a broom can’t be touching the ground?) It is against the law to drive without auto insurance (a necessary law for any who drive the Yadkin 500); we have our homes sprayed for bugs before we’ve seen the first creepy-crawly; we download directions or set the GPS before pulling out of our driveways; we fill our bodies with preventative supplements and slather ourselves in sunscreen before venturing outdoors, and our kids are padded down in so much protective gear that they look like Haz-Mat inspectors on bicycles.
America, that former “home of the brave”, that nation of pioneers and explorers, is decidedly risk-averse these days.
But not here, not at Fort Bragg. Here families still stand at Green Ramp and say goodbye, knowing that they could be sending their loved one off to die. Here, on most any regular day, soldiers wait for the light and watch as the jumpmaster extends his body into the rush of wind to look for the drop zone … and then they jump, possibly with “Blood on the Risers” echoing in their ears all the while. And here, soldiers and spouses still dare to take on these risks for 20 years or more, knowing that Congress is ever-chipping away at the security package they were promised when they enlisted. And that is perhaps that’s the riskiest decision of all.
There is a home for the brave in America, but it is not America. It is here.