I wrote this as a tribute to all the American soldiers who fought for our freedom. Thank you, your sacrifices will never go unnoticed.
(It was meant to be published on the 4th of July but for some reason fanfiction wasn't working!)
His joints didn't work like they used to. His knees throbbed with every step he took, but he didn't stop once. Perhaps if his hearing was the way it should have been, he would have heard his feet shuffling on the gravel and freshly-cut grass or his loved ones whispering softly behind his back. But, he didn't hear any of it. All he could hear was the constant flapping of the American flag swaying in the wind.
He had been here before; he knew where he was going. It was one of the few things he could remember these days. He could count off, one by one, step by step. One…two…three… He knew where to turn and how to navigate through the sea of white and green. Row after row, stride after stride, he continued on, unwavering.
He was slower than he used to be, he admitted it. He almost couldn't remember the time when he ever moved faster than this, or when he body would let him. Generally, he saved his short supply of energy for times like these when he needed every ounce of it to keep himself together. It would take everything he had in him that day to control his tear ducts and suppress the pain swelling in his chest.
Forty-seven, forty-eight, forty-nine. Almost there, just a few more strips of white. He passed Mike Martinez, whose name was rather familiar even though he never got to know his face. Beside him, he saw Ray McClure, another familiar comrade he learned to love, though never met.
He let his feet carry him further on. He was on auto-pilot now, his muscles working from memory for he walked this same line countless times. He brushed a knobby, wrinkled hand against the cold stone, sending a chill up his spine – a chill that extending to every inch of his body. He knew it wasn't just from cold.
He heard a woman sobbing weakly not too far away. Her cries were soft, nearly inaudible, but the wind blew the pitiful sound to his old years. The sound generated memories of his mother crying at his feet, mourning his brothers, praying for those who died alongside them, thanking God for his safe arrival. It was one of the few things that made him soft and hearing this poor woman weep made his insides turn and twist sickeningly.
His feet came to an abrupt stop and his body turned toward the one cross he knew like the back of his hand. The white marble was beautifully crafted and smooth to the touch apart from the place where the name John H. Miller – whom he knew as Captain – was engraved in even letters. He could tell anybody with his eyes closed that there was a small imperfection in the stone on the left side and the first "L" in Miller was slightly larger than second. He could tell you the way the grayish tint mixed with the speckled white and how it reflected the sunlight in the same way the Captain's eye used to glint when a smile passed over his face.
He stared at it fixedly, forcing his old mind to remember it always, even though he was sure he would never forget. Not just the face of the grave, but the face of the Pennsylvanian school teacher who risked his life in place of his own; the man whose final mission was to save him, an unworthy farm boy from Iowa. He never understood how his life would ever be more important than Captain Miller's or Irwin Wade's or Adrian Caparzo's. All he saw was that brave soldiers continued to die fighting his battle as he was shipped home to the comfort of his warm bed.
Each day, he asked himself one thing. Had he earned it? Had he done what the Captain had last ordered him? Had he fulfilled his last duty to the American men who died in his wake? Did he really earn the gift to live and live to the fullest? He never told a soul, not even his wife or mother, but he feared he had failed. He was deathly afraid that he wasn't living up to the expectations of the poor souls watching down on him from the heavens. He wasn't sure he would be able to face them at the gates if he hadn't done what they'd asked.
His breathing came in ragged and quick. It suddenly occurred to him that he might cry for his lower lip quivered violently. He prayed that tears wouldn't surface and that he could keep his composure but it seemed the years were catching up to him. His age had recently allowed for a constant flow of emotions and memories that his weak mind and conscience could hardly bare.
He remembered everything. He remembered the day he last saw his four brothers. He remembered the day he parachuted for the first time into new and exciting territories. He remembered the first time he smoked a cigarette. He remembered the first man he killed and the way the color drained from his face. He remembered the first time he met Captain John Miller. He remembered how he disregarded orders from a superior officer for the first time and the reason he did it. He remembered the day he suffered the worst grief he could ever recall: June 16, 1944. He remembered how, when he returned home, his native soil seemed more foreign to him than that of the European battlefields.
Home was never the same to him after the deaths of his brothers, and he hoped Captain Miller understood that. Home, to him, was that quaint little house on the farm where he and his brothers fought over the bathroom in the mornings and where they laughed at the bizarre aprons their mother would wear as she slaved over the stove for hours. It took him years to adjust to the new life and to create his own family and home to move on past the life he once knew.
It took time, and some extensive thought, but Private James Francis Ryan realized how much he loved his country. He felt it in every bone of his body. He figured the only reason a man could ever fight as boldly and as relentlessly as the men he saw on that fateful day would be because he adored his nation and the freedom it gave him. Every American soldier that died fighting to protect their beloved republic deserved to be remembered and would have wanted their love to live on to those fortunate enough to live to tell the tale. With every fiber of his being he felt blessed to live in such a wonderful land. Words could not describe the gratitude he owed to the soldiers who died for his freedom.
He brushed his stubby fingers against the tombstone and rose to his feet. He hadn't even noticed he had sunk to his knees from the strange mixture of pain and pride. But now, he rose steadily and backed away from the grave. His gaze was set and his back was upright. He gave one last, internal farewell to the one man he credited with his life and saluted him, just as a proper, grateful soldier would do.
Private Ryan turned to leave just as a tiny teardrop trickled down his decrepit cheek and the American flag waved in the gentle, afternoon breeze.