*Note: This essay was published in the Wall Street Journal print edition on May 25, 2018. It can also be found online here.
The closest I came to getting killed in Iraq was during the summer of 2005. I spotted an enemy fighter firing a rocket-propelled grenade right at my Humvee. Somehow he missed, but for a moment I was sure I wasn’t going home.
Whenever something like that happened, afterward came a mental flash. In my mind’s eye, I’d see my funeral or look down on my corpse. Soldiers think about mortality more than most. I still do. We also think—especially over Memorial Day weekend—about those who died on other battlefields.
Last year I found myself wondering about a statue of a World War I “doughboy” in Manitou Springs, Colo., where I now live. I found no marker or plaque, only questions. Who was he? Where did he fight?
The Marines were so persistent that the Germans called them “Devil Dogs.” This disciplined spirit was probably with Eber when he was killed on June 15, 1918, likely as he attacked one of the last enemy machine-gun positions at Belleau Wood, France. A boy from Manitou Springs, known for its water, drew his last breath in a place named by joining the French words “belle” and “eau,” meaning “good water.”
Eber was buried on the battlefield, but the government brought him home on Sept. 8, 1921. The funeral was “one of the largest ever held in Manitou,” according to a news report. The local American Legion post, named in Eber’s honor, held dances and took donations to fund the 7-foot bronze statue—“Over the Top to Victory”—in his honor. They placed it on a 20-ton boulder of native granite in the town’s Memorial Park. It rained at the dedication, on Memorial Day 1924.
Eber’s parents thenceforth listed two addresses: the house where they actually lived, and Memorial Park, where their only son’s memory lived on. Today the park is a place where artists create, people meet, and children play. In 2007, a woman writing in the local newspaper called it a place of “peace.”
I’ve learned that a soldier’s sacrifice doesn’t have to be known. Eber gave his life for something greater than himself. All Americans can appreciate this. When you need some solace from the rain or sun, you don’t require a plaque to feel grateful for the tree or statue you sit beneath. One hundred years after his death, Eber’s life and sacrifice still matter. I’m glad I found him.