Whenever you get fed up listening to some gasbag run on and on about how everybody in Congress is a faker or a hypocrite or both, tell the gasbag to call me so I can introduce him to Rep. Walter Jones, the North Carolina Republican now serving his eighth term.
I admit that I get awfully tired of listening to politicians in both parties give the same speech over and over about how much these politicians value the men and women now serving in the U.S. military: "These are the very best America produces" ... "the quiet heroes whose priceless sacrifices we treasure" ... and how "we stand in awe of their patriotism," etc., etc., etc.
The big problem is that, with rare exception, senators and congressmen do not know personally anybody in the enlisted ranks of the U.S. military. Sure, they have visited them here and overseas and, no doubt, been sincerely impressed by the commitment and the professionalism of the men and women in uniform.
But you have to understand: Soldiers and Marines' families cannot and do not write four- or five-figure checks to anybody's political campaign. Nor do they get invited to White House dinners or Kennedy Center openings. They do not ski Vail. They do not summer in the Hamptons or Jackson Hole.
People in power in Washington love the PFCs and lance corporals and staff sergeants. They just don't happen to know - personally - any of them or their families. Absent the military draft, the sons of advantage and privilege and official Washington are overwhelmingly spared from harm's way.
This is what makes Rep. Walter Jones, Republican of North Carolina, so different and so special. American warriors are not cardboard cutouts to Walter Jones.
They are not some popular object upon which to lavish public praise and purple prose. No, every one of them to him is an individual with hopes and dreams and plans for the future - just like every congressman's son or daughter.
Walter Jones is not the only member of Congress who visits wounded troops at Walter Reed Army Medical Center or Bethesda Naval Hospital. I am sure that other members, too, have gone as Walter Jones has gone, to the funerals of American service members killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. But nobody else I know has personally written a letter of condolence to the families of those who have fallen in those distant battlefields.
At the current count, Jones has written 7,933 letters to the relatives and loved ones of U.S. troops who have lost their lives. The letters are respectful, personal and sympathetic. They tell the grieving survivors that somebody in power understands the pain they are enduring and knows the name of the child, parent, partner or sibling they lost.
If you're in Washington, please by all means visit the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill. There on the second floor, on the walls outside Room 2333, Walter Jones' office, you will see the "Faces of the Fallen," images of some of the 4,962 American military personnel who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their likenesses force us to remember that casualties are not numbers - they are our brothers and our sisters.
The U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq is now in its 88th month - almost twice as long as the United States fought in World War II. The next time any public figure begins rhapsodizing about how much he values, respects and, even, reveres those valiant volunteers who wear the U.S. uniform, ask him - or her - one question: Could you tell me the name and hometown and next of kin of one of those service members whom you so much value, respect and revere?
Walter Jones could. Because when he talks about caring for those who serve, he really means it.
To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.