I have been a soldier for 14 years now and am the son and grandson of men who served in the U.S. Army and Navy. I am stationed in Washington, D.C., but my wife and I chose to live in southern Maryland to enjoy the quiet that comes with some space from the city. There are not many of us soldiers in the area, and few people typically guess that I am in the military.
My wife and I recently visited a local antiques shop and struck up a conversation with a vendor named Cindy Lohman. She immediately asked if I was in the military. She’s a military mom, and they seem to have radar for troops. She is also a Gold Star mom: Her son, Army Sgt. Ryan Baumann served in the famed 101st Airborne Division, she told us; he died in Afghanistan on Aug. 1, 2008.
Until that moment, I thought that the impact of a service member dying was something that mostly affects those of us in uniform. Ms. Lohman’s story reminded me that the heaviest weight of military sacrifice is borne by the families left behind.
When troops salute the fallen as their remains are loaded onto the helicopter at a forward operating base, or salute their memory at an installation memorial service, the grief often passes quickly. There is still a mission to carry on. I never had to experience the pain that a family feels when their son or daughter is honored with the sound of taps and a 21-gun salute. At every transfer of remains or memorial service I have attended, I thought of the family and prayed for them. I sometimes tried to imagine what they were going through, but I could not bear to think of it for more than a few minutes.
But face to face with this Gold Star mother, I felt an immediate kinship. Her son’s unit was deployed to the eastern border province of Khost in 2008. This is the same province I deployed to in 2011. Ryan’s unit was attacked on a road known as Route Alaska. I deployed to Afghanistan from Alaska. He was a member of the historic 101st Airborne Division. I am proud to serve in the Army as a paratrooper.
If Ryan were alive today, it is possible that our paths would cross. He reportedly had dreams of making the Army a career. He was engaged. Like so many before in our nation’s history, he was willing to live a life that meant safety was never assured. I will never know him, but his memory lives on in the hearts of his family and friends and in the stories they still tell about him.
In those moments with Cindy, time and distance became small obstacles to a shared story. She was not looking for sympathy. This mother is proud of her son’s service and cares deeply for those who wear the uniform.
On Memorial Day we remember the men and women who have given to the nation through military service. I typically think of the eight soldiers who did not come back with my brigade when we returned from Afghanistan in 2012: Spc. Jeffrey White, Staff Sgt. Thomas Fogarty, Pfc. Richard McNulty, Sgt. Brian Walker, Pfc. Vincent Ellis, Pfc. Nathan Davis, Staff Sgt. Carl Hammar and Spc. Ethan Martin.
This year, I will also think of Sgt. Ryan Baumann — and his mom.
Chase Spears (Cs1718@georgetown.edu) is a U.S. Army major, currently studying as an Army Advanced Civil Schooling Fellow at Georgetown University. His opinions are his own and do not reflect any official policy or position of the Department of the Army or the Department of Defense.