September 25, 2021

Service and Sacrifice


Cincinnati Reds radio announcer Marty Brennaman works his last game on September 26, 2019, at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati, Ohio. (David Kohl/USA Today Sports/Reuters)

An Ohio boy returns to his roots and rediscovers the true spirit of America

As the media and the House spiraled into a deep, dark vortex of impeachment madness and hopeful neurotic frenzy, I unplugged from the matrix of partisan politics that permeates all aspects of life if you live within a nuclear-fallout radius of Washington, D.C., and traveled west to Cincinnati, Ohio. While the political world raged on without the benefits of my sarcastic analysis on Twitter, I spent two full days participating in a number of events as a guest of the Cincinnati Reds, America’s first professional baseball team. I had been invited by the team to be the Hometown Hero at the Reds’ final home game, which also happened to be the final game that their iconic radio announcer, the great Marty Brennaman, would call. During those days, I was reminded of two key facts, ones that I’d forgotten over time since leaving the Midwest — patriotism is alive and well, and there are many more important things in life than politics.

My family moved to Cincinnati when I was a boy. My family had ties to the Bengals organization (which has brought decades of suffering as a result of their woeful mismanagement). I grew up playing baseball (with the current Reds’ manager, David Bell, for a few years) at a Catholic middle school, attended the Jesuit St. Xavier High School, and then graduated from Miami University, a beautiful campus an hour north of the city in the rural town of Oxford. I even moved back to Cincinnati and worked in corporate America for five years before I was called to serve in the Marine Corps.

Returning to one’s home is always a bit of a surreal experience, but leaving the elitist, rat-race mentality of the overpopulated East Coast for the Midwest is like entering another era, one where people are friendly and helpful and have their priorities in the correct order on the life worksheet. One of those priorities is a profound sense of gratitude for those who served in uniform, and it was on full display in the way I was treated, not as an individual, but as a symbol of the military.

The Reds’ PR manager, Michael Anderson, knew my history, had read my thrillers, and had recently heard me on Rob Dibble’s ESPN radio show advocating for victims of burn-pit exposure, an issue that still does not have the attention in Congress or the White House that it deserves. As a result, he booked me on Cincinnati’s biggest radio talk show and two morning news shows on the day of the baseball game, and the Cincinnati Enquirer did a piece on me and burn pits here. What was consistent was that none of them were aware of the issue, but they all wanted to help, a true dichotomy compared to the D.C. crowd, which only seems to be paying lip service to this issue. Capitol Hill is not a place where issues go to get solved; it’s where issues go to languish for years before dying a quiet death.

During the game, as the Hometown Hero, I had one job — at the end of the second inning, stand on top of the Reds’ dugout, wave to the crowd, and don’t fall off. The moment itself was a blur, 90 seconds of cheering, shouts, clapping, and pictures. And then it was over, and I climbed down from the dugout and returned to my seat, shaking hands with people along the way, people who only wanted to show their gratitude for someone who served. As I had told the Reds beforehand, this wasn’t about me. There are countless veterans who sacrificed significantly more, went on many more deployments, and saw much more intense combat and violence. But for the people of Cincinnati, for that one game, I was the standard-bearer for the day. Several people approached me and spoke to me about their relatives’ service, their service, and the significant impact it had on their lives. And I saw in their eyes that they were thankful to have someone to convey it to, if only for a moment.

I’ve said this often: While I may have done a few things in my 47 years on this rock of turmoil and conflict, I am not special. I don’t know anyone in the military that feels that they are. We all have our jobs to do, and we try to do them as well as we can, some better than others. In fact, when I was initially asked, I’d briefly considered turning it down. But the Reds are such a class-act organization and they ensured that I felt welcome and that the emphasis was on all veterans, not just this one. While all sports teams across the country honor the military in one way or another, the genuine sincerity on the part of the organization and the fans was unmistakable. Try finding that in D.C. I dare you.

And then, just as quickly, I was back in Maryland, the No. 1 worst place in the country to retire. While I may live on the East Coast, the past week made me realize that I’m still a Midwestern boy with Midwestern values. Places like Ohio are where things like service and sacrifice still mean something to the average citizen, where patriotism isn’t a cliché, and where politics aren’t the primary topic of conversation. Unfortunately, the right and left lateral limits of the country don’t always feel the same way or reflect the same values. The silver lining is that I know there are countless veterans on both of those coasts, fighting the good fight in the culture war and trying to hold politicians accountable to the people, not to their personal betterment and self-serving agendas. And in this day and age, at this moment in time, that’s probably all we can hope for, even if we deserve a lot more.

Semper Fidelis.

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Matthew Betley
National Review