KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Hundreds of people, of all ages, lined nearly four miles of 151st Street in Olathe, Kan., on Monday to show respect for a 23-year-old hometown boy killed in Afghanistan, and many saluted as the black hearse bearing the coffin of Army Pfc. Cale C. Miller passed by.
They stood in silence. Many were dressed in red, white and blue. Some held brightly lettered signs saying, “Community 4 Cale.” Some waved flags.
Miller was killed May 24 in Maiwand, Kandahar province, when the Stryker vehicle he was driving was struck by a makeshift bomb.
He was a member of Bravo Company, 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team from Fort Lewis, Wash. He had joined the Army in February 2011 and had been in Afghanistan less than three months.
He’s just one of at least 1,857 members of the U.S. military killed in Afghanistan since 2001. But I don’t know whether any of them has received such a welcome home.
A Community4Cale Facebook group helped spread the word, asking people to show their support when Cale’s body arrived at a local airport and was transported along 151st Street to a funeral home.
The procession included members of Miller’s family, local government officials, members of Olathe’s police and fire departments, and the Patriot Guard.
This is the sort of thing you might expect in small-town America, but Olathe (population 127,472) isn’t exactly a small town. It’s the county seat of Johnson County, the most heavily populated county in Kansas, and a suburb of Kansas City, Mo.
Watching the story on the local news made me think of the parades I heard about for returning vets of World War II. That was the last war when people turned out to shower the military with gratitude and praise.
I wondered what was going through the mind of one Vietnam vet who had brought his grandchildren from Leavenworth County. He spoke of showing the “honor and respect” that soldiers are due.
I heard no bitterness or irony in his voice, though Vietnam vets faced a much less welcoming public when they came home.
My dad, who fought in Korea with the First Marine Division, told me there were no parades when he arrived back in Missouri in January 1954. More than 40 years later, in a baseball cap identifying him as a “Korean War Vet,” a stranger did come up to him and told him thank you for his service.
He was on the verge of tears as he told me about it; no one had ever thanked him before, he said.
He was lucky, though. He came home alive. Got married. Raised a family.
Cale Miller was only 23 years old. As a mother, I cannot fathom his mother’s pain. Deborah Collins, Cale’s mom, wrote his obituary.
She started with a quote from an unknown author: “The American soldier does not fight because he hates who is in front of him. He fights because he loves who is behind him.”
And those of us who are behind those soldiers do need to make sure we thank them, whether we agree with the politicians who led us into war or not.
“Freedom isn’t free” is the motto emblazoned on the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington.
The cost is measured in the lives of soldiers like Pfc. Cale C. Miller.
Diana Reese is a freelance journalist in Kansas City. Follow her on Twitter @dianareese.