Donald J. Ballman – Sergeant, United States Army

From a contemporary press report:

Sergeant Don Ballman wasn't what you'd call a warrior. In his years in the Army – which he spent in Germany after the Korean War – Don was never called on to share a foxhole with his buddies in combat. But that's not the point.

The point is, when the call came to serve his country, Don answered. And last week, his country returned the favor. Don – the father of my oldest and closest friend, David Ballman – was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery on a beautiful, unseasonably warm spring day.

As Arlington ceremonies go, it wasn't elaborate – but it was no less elegant and poignant for its simplicity. After a cadre of soldiers gently unfurled a flag and placed it over Don's remains, a small group of others to our left raised their rifles and fired off a salute. As if on cue, a helicopter swooped over the cemetery from the Pentagon. As it disappeared off into the distance, a bugler in the distance to our right played “Taps.”

As a soldier bent down to offer David the gratitude of the nation for his father's service, my friend was visibly moved. So was I, and I immediately thought of my own father and his service in the Navy during the Korean conflict. That's odd, in a way, because my Dad always makes light of his service – which took place mostly on an aircraft carrier on the other side of the world from where the action was. He never saw battle, and was never injured – unless you count severe sunburn sustained at a beach during R&R.

Still, it's clear that he was aware of some of the benefits of service. During the most intransigent period of my teenage years, when I never passed up an opportunity to test his authority (or my mother's), I remember him telling me, “I can't wait until the Navy gets you.”

It never happened. Nor did the Army, the Marines or the Air Force “get” me, or David, or any of our other friends. I sat around the lunch table in elementary school during the Vietnam War, talking with my pals about how we would one day go off to war, as our grandfathers, fathers, uncles and brothers had done. I nervously went down to the post office with my college buddies when we turned 18 to register for the draft.

But I never got the call to serve. I had the good fortune of being in the vanguard of that ever-expanding group of Americans who let others do the fighting for us. From an efficiency and effectiveness standpoint, that's proven to be a very sound approach. As Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has repeatedly pointed out, the all-volunteer force is a very well-trained and lethal military machine.

But maybe Senator Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., who proposed reinstituting a form of military draft last week, has a point. If we really are to have an indefinite war on terrorism, he argues, we ought to expose a larger group of people to the risks associated with it.

That would at least raise the standard of debate on the issue of the use of military force. For example, because Democratic presidential standard-bearer John Kerry served honorably and with distinction in Vietnam, he could honorably, distinctly and vigorously oppose the war when he returned home. With an all-volunteer force, we're all dependent on people like Pat Tillman, who gave his life in Afghanistan last week after turning down a $3.6 million pro football contract with the Arizona Cardinals to join the Army Rangers.

Of course, with a son and daughter of my own, I'll readily admit that I'm far less than fully comfortable with the idea of compulsory military service. But I have a very different perspective on the meaning of service after spending a morning among the headstones at Arlington.

VETERAN SERVICE DATES: 08/02/1954 – 07/24/1957
DATE OF BIRTH: 05/31/1934
DATE OF DEATH: 03/22/2004


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