He would shift his body into the car, riding shotgun alongside my father. Slinging his backpack to the floor, it would invariably rest between his feet as he leaned back, trying to get comfortable. The scent of his cologne wafted through the car and we noticed that he had taken pains with his hair. Dark-featured, good-looking Albert Bitton had arrived.
My father would sometimes joke with him and Albert would goodnaturedly respond. We onlookers would squirm, feeling as though we were intruding on his private brooding time, reserved, we thought, for all teenagers. Despite the fact that we would sometimes get to school late, he never complained. He'd simply throw his backpack over one shoulder and go loping across the parking lot, never asking to be dropped off closer to the building, not letting one word of reproach pass his lips.
He was a wrestler. He was very proud of that fact, a member of the Ida Crown Jewish Academy wrestling team, competing against others and glad of his victories. Some days he would have his sports bag with him, and we eagerly anticipated stories of his matches, curious to know of his successes, waiting to hear whatever he would tell us.
I can't say I knew him, because all I did was ride in the same gold Town & Country minivan with him on our way to school. But today I am glad I knew even that much of him.
You see, Albert Bitton chose to join the United States Army. He finished high school and upped and joined, enlisting in time to be deployed to Iraq, where he worked as a Medic.
Today, Albert Bitton was killed.
I didn't know him. I cannot praise his good nature, his kindhearted actions, everything that is beautiful in him. I did not know him to see that, though I am sure many of his friends can praise him, and will do so. But by the very virtue of his actions, by the very fact that he chose to enlist, to serve his country and his people, doing so at a time where he must have known what the cost could be, I can know a little of him. I can know that this was a brave man, and he died in pursuit of helping others, healing them and bandaging their wounds. I can know that it takes a strong man to face his own death, to realize that possibility and go forward anyway. It takes a man with a sense of courage, strength and decency, a man with self-respect. It takes a man of honor to serve his country when the task has not been forced on him, and it is his own choice. It takes a man with the courage to choose his own death.
And so, I respect Albert Bitton. I admire that courage, that strength, that desire to serve. And at the same time I feel so low, as though I were doubled over from the force of a blow. We talk about the War in Iraq and we view it politically. We talk about strategies and allow easy words to leave our mouths. But we don't understand.
In the words of Mr. Dachille, who delivered the Commencement Address at North Shore Country Day, my highschool:
"Whatever your views of U.S. foreign policy or the war, I relate this story in order to make this appeal: Please be grateful that there are men and women who are willing to leave their spouses, their children, their jobs and their friends and go in harm's way for you. The good news is that there are thousands of them. And I am not just referring to military personnel who are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice. I am also talking about all of those who have made a commitment to nurture, to protect, and to serve others. I am talking about policemen, firemen, doctors, nurses and yes - teachers. "
Today I am grateful in a way that I have never been before, because I could not have comprehended before.
And so Albert, because I believe you can hear me, thank you. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
I am sure that I am not alone in this. All over the world, there are people who are grateful to you, though they do not know your name, and they may not know your story. But they know what you represent to them, and therefore they are grateful.
Thank you, Albert.
May you now know nothing but joy.