Sweat dripped down my back steadily as I focused my gaze strait forward into the field directly in front of me. The largest fly I have ever seen was buzzing disturbingly close to my right ear; I tried not to flinch. We stood like statues in the short grass: four Americans in red berets and crisp ACU uniforms standing at Parade Rest. It smelled like hay and horse manure and my feet felt numb.
The man at the microphone, standing next to a granite grave stone, stood refined and elegant in his tan dress uniform decorated with medals I will never know the names of. At first site, as he shook my hand and said, “Welcome my American friends,” he reminded me strangely of Uncle Kelvin.
Then the music started, blaring from a speaker somewhere behind me. I didn’t recognize the song, but I quickly understood the meaning as the Lithuanian lieutenant next to me spoke firmly yet softly.
“Attention!” and then, “Salute.”
I slowly raised my right arm to a 90 degree angle and brought my hand upwards till my index finger touched the edge my beret. I looked across the small field and could make out 12 retired Lithuanian Navy officers, all far past their prime, raising their wrinkled hands in salute with me. An old retired army general, probably over 80 years old, had managed to feebly stand from his wooden chair, leaving his crutches lying in the grass. I am an American, but a sharp twinge of emotion shot through my heart as I held my salute knowing what these men stood for. Engraved on the granite stone that stood just to my left were these words:
Kardo Rinktines Partizanas
Pranas Koncius 1965.07.13
The marker stands where the last resistance fighter in our quarter of Lithuania was shot and killed inside his farmstead home in 1965. His name was Pranas Koncius. He resisted communism. He resisted the Soviet Union. He resisted to his death the forces that were taking his liberty and country. He was the very last one.
The song ended and I lowered my salute. The man in the tan uniform continued. He was the Lithuanian Minister of Defense. He spoke in Lithuanian for a time, and then without warning broke into almost perfect English.
“And to my American friends,” he said, the small crowd listening intently, “We thank you. Thank you for coming here to our country, to train with us and stand with us. We have fought together in Europe and Afghanistan and we stand together now. This is exactly what we hoped for and what we need. Thank you.”
I don’t know very much about why I train from day to day in the sun—letting sweat soak my back—and risk my life jumping out of airplanes and desperately miss my dear wife and children, but I know that standing with those men on the grass in Lithuania that day means more to these Lithuanian people than I can possibly understand.