Last week was a stark reminder that in one split second life can end or be altered forever. The bombings in Boston and the explosion in Texas brought home to us this fragility of life. In one case, the death and maiming came at the hands of people whose agenda was terror and tragedy. In the other, possible negligence led to an industrial accident that killed fourteen people and leveled five city blocks. For many of those who survived, life on the other side of that second will be a burden unanticipated, a struggle unimagined. But they still have the greatest gift of all — life. Of those who died in last week’s tragedies, the majority were first responders. An MIT police officer was killed during the manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombing suspects. In Texas, eleven of the fourteen people who perished had dedicated their lives to saving others. From the outpourings in the paper — as fleeting as they are — we will remember these people as devoted public servants. But how often do we reflect on what that really means? Did we ever really think of how profoundly different their choices were from our own? Their job descriptions were uncertainty; their stock and trade, potential sacrifice. Many of them lived with the prospect that on a fully engaged day of work they might not return to their homes. And this past week, many of them didn’t.
This came to me in an especially personal way over the weekend. I learned that the lives of my colleague and associate Major General Joseph D. Brown IV and his wife Susan were suddenly extinguished in a small aircraft accident on Friday. Both Joe and Sue devoted themselves to this country. Though Joe did not die in the line of fire, he had put himself in extreme danger many times. A 32-year Air Force veteran, he spent more than 4,300 hours in the cockpit — including sorties into Iraqi “lethal airspace” to take out GPS jamming towers — under fire from surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft barrages. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his “extraordinary airmanship and bravery.” And the citation for his Bronze Star read, for “the near flawless execution of over 700 combat missions.” Later in his career he served as deputy director of the U.S. Strategic Air Command before taking up his assignment as the first Commandant of the newly renamed, Dwight D. Eisenhower School of National Security and Resource Strategy at the National Defense University. Then, one April weekend Joe and Sue were gone. He was an exceptional leader, an educator, and a defender of our national security — an energetic and optimistic force in these troubling and difficult times. General and Mrs. Brown, like the others who served the public and lost their lives this week, have left us with a debt — one that is hard to put into words. To say they will be missed does not begin to give meaning to what their lives really represented. With humility and purpose, they made a commitment to clear the way so that others could be first — to enjoy peace, freedom and our days without worry. Their lives may have gone in a flash, but their legacies of service will endure with every task we undertake and every challenge we will face.