By Timothy R. Allan
SPECIAL TO THE NEWS
One day soon, go down to Canalside. Do this at sunset or on a fine early morning. Or, perhaps, it might be more fitting on a rainy day. Give up a little of your time. It’ll be peaceful and still. Sea birds will drift above the river. Occasionally, they’ll cry out. Who knows why they do?
Take the short walk from the Buffalo & Erie County Naval and Military Park Museum. Go past the PT boat dangling overhead on the right.
Glance up at the jets pretending to swoop overhead. Pass by the torpedoes and armored vehicles. Don’t wake the Sullivans, the old destroyer named for five brothers lost in one battle. That’s her, leaning wearily against the dock to your left. Do think, though, of how their parents felt when they learned that all five sons had died at sea a long, long way from their home in Iowa.
A few strides later, you’ll come abreast of the starboard bow of the ancient submarine Croaker.
There, turn right. Step softly through the lovely little glade of well-maintained lawn, sweet-scented flowers and sheltering trees toward the gleaming red granite of the WNY Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans War Memorial. Stop. Study the names.
There, among the names of all those who gave up a great deal for the American cause, you’ll see something very unusual in the history of the nation’s wars. You’ll see the names of women.
One of the names is that of Sgt. Cari Anne Gasiewicz. She was killed in action in Iraq when two IEDs detonated next to the vehicle she was in back in 2004. Gasiewicz was only 28 years old. She was a rarity among Americans – she spoke fluent Arabic, a most difficult language to learn.
Gasiewicz learned it well, and continued to study it, always trying to learn distinctive accents among various Iraqi natives. She was an Army intelligence interpreter.
In her eulogy for Cari, her aunt, Barbara Funk, said, “We will try to think of this as your last deployment. One more place you wish to serve, one more group of people you want to know, an additional foreign language you desire to learn. And Sgt. Cari Anne Gasiewicz, when you do master the language of the angels, and I know you will, remember to teach the rest of us.”
At the monument, you’ll also notice the name of Air Force Capt. Jenna L. Wilcox, who died in an accident while on leave in Britain in 2010. She was a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy and had earned a Bronze Star and Combat Action Badge for her service in Afghanistan. Wilcox was 27.
Army Sgt. Shaina B. Schmigel’s name is also carved in that glistening red granite. She died in a nighttime paratrooper training jump exercise in North Carolina in 2014. She was another bright, energetic doer. An intelligence analyst during her highly decorated service in Iraq, she was expanding the scope of her enormous capabilities when her life ended at age 21.
Make no mistake, these women were not better or different from the thousands of Western New Yorkers whose names gild the haunting monuments at the Naval Park and elsewhere. Please understand this, though. They represented something far more important than mere difference. They represented equality.
All of these women were volunteers. But, for those tempted to draw a distinction between volunteers and draftees conscripted into service, think of this. In two very special ways, all who serve are the same. They all give up time. They give up years and, in many, many cases, some give up a lot more.
But go even deeper than that and understand that all who serve give up something maybe even more precious than time. They give up the right to say “no” – to say “no” to an order that could take them anywhere and put them in the presence of unimaginable peril.
For Americans, that right to say “no” is a precious, highly prized chunk of personal freedom. As you gaze on that red granite stone and at the others nearby, think about what it means to give up that right. The answer is right there in front of you in those long lists that stretch and wind through our people’s memory. Is that why the sea birds cry?
Timothy R. Allan, Ph.D., is an emeritus professor in the History Department at SUNY Fredonia.