Keith. That’s the name of my dad’s best boyhood friend. It’s also my brother’s name.
My brother carries Keith’s name because Keith Kahlstorf was only allowed to carry it for a short time. The Vietnam War took his life when he was barely out of his teens.
I’m sure he didn’t want to die. His family didn’t want him to die. My dad didn’t want him to die. But as that cliché saying goes, freedom is not free. People like Keith gave up the opportunity to get married, to raise children and to grow old so that I can sit at my computer and type these words.
A Life of Freedom
My three boys are growing up in a post-911 world of terrorist attacks. It’s a little scary, this world we live in, but the terror hasn’t directly affected my kids. They play basketball and tennis. They hang out at the pool and they play video games. One of them is into weightlifting. And one of them produces trickshot videos for his YouTube channel. Aside from being thrown into my breast cancer fight in 2016, their lives have been pretty insulated.
Just a few days ago our family went backpacking in the mountains of Colorado. We wore all of our supplies on our backs and hiked up to 11,000 feet where we camped in solitude by a beautiful lake. We used logs for chairs. Our dinner table was the ground. We slept in tiny little tents. And bathrooms, well, I’ll leave that to your imagination. We did all this for enjoyment we get in doing challenging things as a family. But we knew the whole time that the next day we would hike back down the mountain and return to flush toilets, comfy beds and some big juicy burgers.
Our night at the lake ended with a cold rainy morning. We were wet, cold and a little sore and I just wanted to get off the mountain. But as I thought about my minor discomfort, I wondered what the end of Keith Kahlstorf’s life might have been like.
A Sacrificed Life
If the fictional stories I’ve read in books like The Things They Carried bear any resemblance to reality, Keith’s last days were probably a struggle for survival in awful conditions. Rain, mud, cold and constant fear of death.
I wonder what he thought about as he fought the enemy and the mosquitos. I’m sure he longed for family and the comfort of his own bed. For a home-cooked meal and a hot shower. But he knew those things may never happen. He knew he may not return home. And he didn’t. He died in war for the sake of his country on May 25, 1969.
My family reaps the benefit of the sacrifice that Keith and so many others made. My brother wears his name, but we all wear the freedom achieved through sacrifice.
Because of Keith and the thousands of men who have given their lives over the course of our country’s lifespan, I am able to vacation in the Colorado Rockies with my children. I can go backpacking for fun knowing exactly when I will return home. My shoes might get wet and my pant legs muddy, but I know that at the end of the trek, a hot shower and a warm bed will be waiting for me.
Our family has had its challenges, but we live without fear. We live in freedom. And we enjoy it. A lot.
And I don’t often enough take the time to just be thankful for the Keith Kahlstorfs who made my happy, blessed life possible. I think we’d all appreciate our lives a little more if we regularly took the time to think about those who sacrificed theirs for our freedom.