A soldier who graduated from Thayer High School lost his life in a firefight in Iraq just three weeks ago. Spc. Kenneth Alan Melton was laid to rest in tiny Jeff Cemetery near Myrtle, Mo., last Sunday.
When the soldier is one who graduated from a local high school, he's no longer a statistic; he's a son, a husband, a father, a student, a friend.
Young Spc. Melton, with his whole life ahead of him, was killed just as area high school seniors were preparing for commencement exercises. The sober news brings home the reality of war and reminds us of the challenges -- and even danger -- all these young adults will soon face.
In the graduation guide inserted in this issue are the faces of the future, the seniors who have finished their coursework and are now venturing out from the safe environment where they have been nurtured for 12 or 13 years. Their faces are full of optimism as they eagerly commence the next big adventure of their lives.
For one night -- graduation -- they will all be together for the last time. But then, in the blink of an eye, they will scatter -- some to work, some to college or technical training, some to service in the armed forces.
Before next year's high school class marches across the stage to accept their diplomas, some from this class will likely see action in Iraq or Afghanistan or elsewhere. We can't help but wonder if there is, among these happy-go-lucky kids, a hero who will put his life on the line for his country. And will there be, among these graduates, heroes of another sort, doctors and teachers, counselors and coaches, pastors and police officers, nurses and firefighters -- who will save lives and shape lives and inspire lives through sacrifice and selfless service?
When we look upon the faces of these graduates it's hard to see soldiers. It seems like only yesterday we saw them at kindergarten graduation or in Little League or in the spelling bee.
One of the graduates, a tall young man with broad shoulders, is already a firefighter, rushing out the door toward his pickup truck at night, ignoring the lightning strikes all around, to go help rescue a motorist stranded in high water. His father watches and sees the frightened little boy who once crawled into bed between his parents during a thunderstorm.
Another graduate is a beautiful young woman who dreams of becoming a pediatrician. As she enthusiastically describes her plans to her parents, they gaze at her and remember the little girl who used to bandage her doll's knees.
One graduate is so anxious to become an English teacher that she has taken college coursework during high school so she can graduate in three years. Her father watches her cramming for her final exams and sees the little girl who used to sit for hours in the porch swing reading one book after another.
Yet another graduate leaves the day after graduation for boot camp to fulfill his dream of becoming an Army Ranger. His mother looks into his eyes and sees again the scruffy little boy who used to climb into her lap with both his fists full of G.I. Joes.
Once her son has graduated and left for school or a job or boot camp, his mother will step into his room, the room that was always too messy, and wish it were messy once again.
And after his daughter the graduate is gone, her father will stand at her dresser and look at the trophies and pictures and stuffed animals and favorite books. Behind that proud smile he chokes back a tear.