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My grandfather spent two weeks in the military during WWII, during which he passed out during drills and battled a mysterious illness in the infirmary before being discharged. Before him, I had a great-grandfather and a great-grand uncle who served in the trenches of WWI. On my father’s side, my uncle Greg served in Vietnam after his ex-wife signed him up for the draft without his knowledge. Still, I don’t consider myself to be part of a military family. My forebears wisely made it a point to avoid getting shot at. Most of what I understand about the Armed Forces is by proxy.

Much of my childhood was spent near Nellis Air Force Base and several of my friends had enlisted parents. On the morning of September 11, just a couple weeks after I moved to Flagstaff, a girl in my class broke down crying because she knew her father was going to war. Beyond these brief encounters, I know very little about military service.

I’m not patriotic in the popular sense. I don’t own a red, white and blue lapel pin. I don’t pledge my allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. I guess four years of studying political science have left me more than a little cynical.

Despite my criticism, I know I live in a remarkable place — a place where I can criticize to my heart’s content. I may not have faith in the government, but I have faith in the promise. I believe all people are created equal. It may not always be true, but it is truer here than anywhere else in the world. America is an unprecedented and ongoing experiment in democracy. That’s worth protecting.

The experiment comes at a cost. Progress often requires sacrifice. Before his execution, Revolutionary War soldier and spy Nathan Hale lamented, “I regret that I have but one life to give for my country.” I don’t know if I have that kind of devotion for my homeland, but there are many who do. Today, I remember and am humbled by their selflessness.

Someday, I hope we will grow out of our fascination with war. Someday, I hope we will live in a world that no longer needs armies or soldiers; where I won’t worry about my friends who dutifully wear the uniform. But until there is peace, we need people willing to give up everything — people like my grandfather, Paul, my great-grand uncle, Boyd, and my great-grandfather, Charles (and even my uncle Greg).

This Memorial Day, I’m grateful for the sacrifices of the men and women who have given — in the words of Abraham Lincoln — the last full measure of devotion.

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Jonny Eberle is a writer and photographer in Flagstaff, AZ who can’t decide whether to write his byline in first or third person. He likes long walks on the beach, alliteration and publishing pithy posts on Twitter: @jonnyeberle.

[Disclaimer: The families of the soldiers whose names are pictured above are in no way associated with the author or his views.]

Update: I just found out that my Uncle Jim on my Father’s side spent 4 years in the Marine Corps. I salute him and maintain my thesis.

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